Curricular Change to Improve Mental Health: Medical Student Perspective

By: Vanessa B. Voss, medical student, Class of 2016, Saint Louis University School of Medicine

Medical school is known for being difficult. My fellow students and I all worried that once we started classes, we would become studying machines with no social life or sleep for the subsequent four years. We expected the worst but were willing to work hard to reach our dreams of becoming physicians.

During orientation at Saint Louis University (SLU), we were surprised to be greeted with a friendly and transparent dean staff, manageable class schedule, and encouragement to pursue outside activities, as Slavin and colleagues describe in their article in the April issue of Academic Medicine. They stressed that we needed to pursue other activities to balance our hard academic focus and presented many different ways to get involved. The message we received was that it was not only enjoyable, but beneficial, to take time away from studying and that the more we took care of ourselves, the better learning we would be capable of.

My interests led me to organize and teach wellness classes for low-income residents of Saint Louis. I used our longitudinal elective time as well as the flexibility of a pass-fail system to pursue this dream and provide a needed service for the community. As part of the service learning community, I received faculty mentoring and peer support to develop and implement this project. It has given me a sense of purpose in the community that has been crucial to my well-being during medical school in addition to developing skills for my future career.

One downside to the current curriculum is that our longitudinal elective time stops during our third year clinical rotations. For many of us, including myself, we are forced to step back from leading projects and to find new students to take over. While this provides opportunity for younger students to get involved, it causes discontinuity in many of our community programs because every two years there is complete leadership turnover. If ongoing elective time were available during third year, both the students and our programs would benefit from continuing involvement.

Our generation strives for work-life balance, and these curriculum changes exemplify it. We have learned to prioritize outside interests to keep our activities broadly focused and in turn improve productivity. These skills will prevent burnout later in our careers and make us more available emotionally to our patients, which is something that health care desperately needs and that produces better clinical decision making.

When I talk to friends at different medical schools, they are often unhappy, disliking their program and just looking forward to finishing. This strategy is dangerous for developing physicians because our lives will continue to become more stressful and it will likely never get better. While I certainly have stressful days, overall I’m just as happy as I was when I started, if not more, because I’ve learned to engage with multiple stimulating and satisfying activities in addition to my studies and have a supportive community of students and administrators.

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One Comment

  1. Julia
    April 3, 2014 at 3:36 AM

    I am encouraged to hear about your experience and how there have been positive changes to SLU’s curriculum to facilitate health and wellness. I am a second-year medical student and feel that my program would greatly benefit in a curriculum change that considered student’s well-being