Ross University Blog

DEAN'S BLOG: How We Can Help Stressed-Out Students

October 07, 2015


By Joseph A. Flaherty, MD
Dean and Chancellor, RUSM

Medical school is hard. It’s no wonder that many students feel stressed, especially during exam time or when interviewing for the residency match while completing their clinical rotations. Unfortunately for some students with certain psychosocial and genetic characteristics, there is a higher risk of experiencing a clinical depression and/or turning to alcohol and other substances in order to cope. What can we do to help our students?

There has been copious research on the subject of medical students, physicians, and alcohol-related problems. Together with several co-authors, I have also contributed to this body of scientific literature over the years. What we looked at is: what gets people depressed, who gets depressed, and who has a problem with drinking, in the general population and in medical school and residency.

What we found was that historically, there has been a striking difference between the genders; men have had a four-times higher drinking rate while women have had a two-times higher suicide rate. This gender difference was confounding and led to all kinds of biological, psychological and sociological research to try to shed some light on what’s going on.

We can say with certainty that there are triggers for serious depression, like sleep deprivation, jet lag, or a death in the family. To the extent that life events change and biological rhythms are disrupted and altered, those people who are vulnerable by genetic predisposition may experience such a situation as a trigger.

But, we found that while men and women start medical school with the societal rates for alcohol abuse, six years later the women students’ alcohol-abuse rates had risen dramatically and were equal to those of the men. By-and-large, women physicians adopted more “male” coping behavior, like drinking. This is cause for concern.

Therefore, being able to cope with stress is very important in preventing depression and alcoholism. The best coping mechanisms are active – doing something, like talking to other people, and not keeping feelings to yourself. The best prevention is to have a good support system or at least one close friend with whom to share your life. Other helpful activities are pursuing hobbies and getting involved with social causes. Maintaining good nutrition is also very important.

I’m pleased that at Ross University School of Medicine we have very good resources and options for people who show signs of serious depression or substance abuse. For all of the many challenges in life facing our students, we have a health center on campus and a counseling center which is an independent clinical entity addressing the on-going and emergent mental health needs of students, family members, spouses, partners and significant others. The ASPIRE Student Assistance Program, for clinical students and their families is a free and confidential service that provides support through telephonic counseling or referrals to local providers.  It is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  Additionally, students needing help with academic challenges may avail themselves of an array of services through the Center for Teaching and Learning.

We also have more than 50 student clubs and organizations at the school, including those devoted to medical specialties, sports, humanitarian efforts, nationalities, cultural interests, and so much more. For example, there is a Canadian Students club and a Vegetarian Students club. For students seeking to participate in extra-curricular activities that engage them, and offer camaraderie and friendship with peers, they will find a group that is right for them. This may be the best preventive measure of all. Not only is the activity proven to be helpful, but if signs of trouble should arise, fellow students in the group may suggest that a person check out a talk at the counseling center, or another resource that will help.




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