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My off-piste route into medicine & mental health (Part 2)

Updated: Jan 3, 2021

Dr Anna White


This is a blog (part 2 of 2) on my off-piste route into medicine and mental health. Here, I describe my personal story of how I got to where I am now.

I started my journey into medical school and foundation training in a slightly unorthodox way. I want to be able to start this post with an inspiring tale of ambition, drive and how I always knew it was what I wanted to do, love ‘science & helping people,’ ad nauseam, etc. etc. But in all honesty, it was mostly driven by being very competitive, vaguely competent at science (apart from physics) and the more I researched it, the more I wanted to do it.

I did my work experience at an army gym (I still stand by personal trainer as being my fallback option) and ended up leaving school with 6 GCSEs. Not your classic start to a glowing personal statement and ticking all the right UCAS boxes.

I was unwell through most of the slightly more important, exam-based school years (excellent timing, well done me) and missed the majority of Year 11, coming back to school at some point toward the end of March and sitting GCSEs that summer. Not the end of the world, but not ideal. I think I was a permanent black mark on our school’s achievement records (sorry not sorry), and then relapsed quite significantly, spending the majority of the next 2 years in hospital.

So aged 18, when you’re meant to be having the time of your life at freshers (or so I believed) and most of my school friends have left for university with their 76 A*s at A Level (or so it felt), I was just about transitioning back to living at home, still relatively unwell and generally a little confused about how to get back ‘on track’ with education. Aiming vaguely towards nursing as my end goal, but to be honest I was still struggling to eat a sandwich, so it all seemed a little farfetched and completely unachievable.

As part of discharge planning and general life planning, I enrolled on a Prince’s Trust course - which, hesitant as I was, turned out to be a complete game changer. I had applied to the local college for A Levels starting in September, and this 12-week course ran over the summer, aimed at getting teens/ young ‘adults’ who were unemployed and essentially a little directionless into further education/ employment, gain life skills, CV skills, think about what they wanted in their future and generally make us a little more useful, less sh*t humans. And it worked (mostly).

Which brings us on to college, where the hilarious notion that I could potentially achieve the grades for medical school, and actually go to university and start (albeit a little delayed) on the general life plan I had strayed quite far from.

College was hard. Learning again after such a long break was difficult - I am by no means the smartest cookie in the packet, and it took a lot of study (and patience from my long-suffering Chemistry teacher - sorry David). I started AS with Maths, Chemistry, Biology and Psychology (and, full disclaimer, sat the first module of AS chemistry 4 times in 2 years - never failing, but never improving - perfectionism is not the way forward will come to be a recurrent theme throughout this post). After crying like an absolute toddler on AS results day with my C in AS mechanics (I didn't understand it then, and absolutely never will), and managing to disregard all the A’s and generally not failing anything, my Maths teacher took me aside and told me maybe medicine isn't the right career, it's not meant to be, there are other things etc. etc. And I of course believed him (I mean, at the end of the day he was right, there were other options - it wasn't the end of the world), but then I started getting more determined (dropped maths - finally making a sensible decision) and off we went to focus on getting that damn A in Chemistry. The bane of my life over those 2 years (the number of tears shed over Bunsen burners and benzene rings) ... but it's all character building, and good practice for F1/2 - endless frustrating tasks that you just don’t see the point of.

UCAS application (first time round - hence the long story) was not my forte - I did my 4 medicine options and ended up with my only offer being Biomedical Sciences (biomed) at Cardiff. So the choice was: 1) whether or not to take it, 2) apply again during Freshers and try for medicine, 3) try to complete the degree and apply for Graduate Entry (GEM) later down the line, 4) take a gap year and reapply, or 5) research other career opportunities that a biomed degree would help towards, rather than keep pursuing the medicine dream.

Obviously there is no right or wrong in this situation - the factors that swayed me towards biomed-GEM route were a mixture of wanting to leave home, move out and start being more independent, using the time to explore other career opportunities (because, let's be honest, it's quite niche growing up wanting to do a biomed degree), fees and funding (my first degree was in the £3000 per year bracket, with fees going up the following year meaning tuition fee -wise it would be the same for 5 or 7 years), and in hindsight, not being quite ready yet to study medicine and all that entailed.

Even though I am *ahem* slightly older, I definitely don’t regret the biomed route. Despite having probably (definitely) forgotten most of the finer details of the degree - it was an incredibly useful way of doing things - learning anatomy and physiology in more detail (especially anatomy - we did a whole year of dissection and it was genuinely the best), learning about research & lab based skills (again, not the most useful as a med student/ F1, but definitely useful later down the line), writing essays and research papers etc. Also the benefits of giving you time to mature slightly (hopefully) as a human, gain more life experience, some time to assess what it is you are after out a career in medicine/ establish what is driving that underlying desire, and just having a bit more ‘life’ behind you before facing your first on-calls dealing with very distressed patients/ relatives/ stressful situations etc. No doubt this will be scary and overwhelming whatever angle you come at it from, but hopefully you get what I mean.

I’m sure there are separate posts/ blogs on applications/ work experience/ building your personal statement etc. but the most important piece of advice I was given in terms of work experience is that it's not about how much you’ve been able to get, it's what you can show you have learnt from it, and how you can reflect on this and the impact it has had on your choice to apply for medicine. Again, one of the influencing factors of how and why people get into medical school is the range of work experience they have been able to get - mostly through family connections etc, which obviously puts a certain percentage of the populations and people from a more privileged background at a significant advantage.

So, I started GEM medicine with 15 other grads, shortly joined by 200+ other second year non-grad students, and began the more medical side of education.

As I alluded to earlier, I was unwell prior to starting university and found the stress and exposure to hospital environments a bit of a battle initially (combined with the massive sense of imposter syndrome, with all these genius kids who haven’t taken convoluted route here) - and so here comes my first tip about managing your mental health during med school and university in general. SPEAK TO PEOPLE; you are not the first person to be in this position, and absolutely won’t be the last - and the medical school generally really wants to help you. Most (all?) universities will have some sort of counselling/ wellbeing service - some with specific medic support services - and I can’t recommend speaking to them enough as well as letting your tutor know (even if you’ve only ever met them once in a bizarre pathology lab at the beginning of the year). Most places will be accommodating of your needs (they are legally obliged to be!), but they can’t help you if you don’t tell them. And of course - fighting all of the stigma which goes along with mental health conditions, which is unfortunately still present but should absolutely not be a barrier to seeking support. The more we talk about it, and normalise seeking support when we aren’t feeling great, the more it will become normal and socially acceptable it will become.

I found my psych rotation particularly tough - being back in an inpatient psych unit, albeit as a student not a patient, was a very surreal situation to be in, and being in seminars and classes with people discussing eating disorders and depression in not-the-most-tactful way was also a bit of a challenge. In hindsight, it was incredibly important to meet these challenges in a relatively controlled, supported environment (again, not on the wards in the middle of the night when you are stressed and overtired and have given yourself an AKI), but it was far from comfortable and absolutely needed some support around this. I was genuinely shocked at the ignorance of some of my peers and the prejudices they held, especially as statistically several people in the room will have had significant mental health problems. Again, second time of saying it - reach out to people. Let them know you are finding things hard, have plans in place and be aware there is always more than one route to reach your end goal. One of the most important things I learnt in this period is that almost everyone will meet topics throughout med school/ training which are very close to their hearts and they find them uncomfortable, and this is completely valid and normal, and again, don’t be ashamed. Be aware of your triggers, take yourself out of situations which are unhelpful or damaging where possible, access support and be honest.

In conclusion (and congratulations if you have made it this far!), medicine is an amazing career path, (although if you’re reading this you are probably aware of this), but it is not the be all and end all that it can feel like. A lot of seniors that I have spoken to openly tell us juniors that they wouldn’t do it if they had their time again, that we are underpaid, over-worked, etc. and they have much more experience than me so who knows, I might be saying the same thing in 10-20-30 years’ time, BUT in my humble, naive and inexperienced opinion, I think it's the drive, bloody-mindedness and passion of people starting their journey into medicine which keeps it going, keeps people in the profession and discovering the slightly bizarre but wonderful parts of the human experience we learn along the way (in addition to the variety of objects people will insist on inserting into their rectums).

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