I struggled with severe depression and suicidal ideation during my second year of medical school. Depression robbed me of the things I value most – my intellectual curiosity, my motivation to help others, and my will to live. I had come to Michigan armed with a genuine love of science and an earnest desire to do good, but there was a miserable period of time when I lost touch with both. I spiraled. I started to perceive myself as negligent, unlovable, a failure. Thankfully, a member of the medical school administration recognized how much I was struggling, and connected me with lifesaving mental health resources. With the school’s support, I took time off. I worked with a psychiatrist. I took medication. Gradually, over the course of many months, I recovered. I became curious and motivated again. Overcoming depression was unequivocally the hardest thing that I have ever done.
Since getting better, I have become passionate about diminishing mental health stigma, publishing my personal narrative and producing a short film about depression with contributions from over thirty students, residents, and faculty at Michigan Medicine. I founded the grassroots initiative, ‘Physicians Connected,’ in the hopes that more medical trainees who need help will not be afraid to ask for it. I have worked to bring more attention to the issue of physician mental health through interviews with the E.W. Scripps news company and with NPR (airing soon on Michigan Radio’s Stateside!).
Primarily because of the energy and enthusiasm that abounds at Michigan, my advocacy efforts have taken on a life of their own that I could never have anticipated. On September 29, 2018, Physicians Connected participated in an ‘Out of the Darkness’ walk, put on by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Our team of medical students and attending physicians joined the citizens of Ann Arbor in a walk around the city in an effort to combat mental health stigma and raise awareness about depression and suicide. In the two weeks preceding the walk, we raised over $3000 to support AFSP’s important initiatives, which are all focused on preventing suicide and supporting those affected by suicide. At the walk’s start, we were joined by Debbie Dingell, U.S. Representative for Michigan’s 12th congressional district since 2015. Congresswoman Dingell (bottom left in the group shot below) gave a moving speech about losing her own sister to suicide, and emphasized the importance of the physician voice in changing the way that mental illness is conceptualized. It was a truly beautiful day!
I felt so alone when I was depressed, and so ashamed. But since sharing my own story, I have received hundreds of letters from physicians and medical students from around the world, empathizing with my struggle. I have learned that depression is an epidemic in the physician and physician trainee populations, and that as is the case with any epidemic, committed people are needed to put up a fight. Somehow, a great passion has developed out of my darkest hour – one that lends strength and meaning to my personal and professional identities. I have truly never felt more in touch with my motivation to help others, or more excited to be a doctor. As I express in my essay, ‘I Solemnly Share,’ “If I have learned anything after spending most of my short life in pursuit of academic distinction, it is that the appeal of the dividends – good grades, high praise, awards – is as ephemeral as the warm glow felt on their receipt. Not so with the call to protect human life; that’s something truly worth living for.”
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Rahael Gupta is a fourth-year student at the University of Michigan Medical School. She is applying in psychiatry. She can be followed on Twitter at @RahaelG.