Stress Less

HMS launches wellness initiative to help med students learn resilience

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For some MD students, medical school may be the first time they face death as they begin clinical rounds and begin to deal with the reality of their patients’ mortality.

For some, after years of success as students, medical school might also be the first time they struggle academically.

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The challenges continue as training proceeds, and a growing body of research shows that the stress eventually takes a toll. A growing number of studies that have found high rates of burnout, depression, anxiety and suicide among medical trainees and physicians are causing concern among medical educators.

Harvard Medical School is launching a wellness and mental health initiative that leaders say could help reduce stress and provide students with the skills they need to help them cope with the challenges they will face not only in school but throughout their careers.

“The goal is to create a culture of wellness for students and also to give them the skills and the tools that they can use to manage stress and deal with mental health challenges throughout their lives,” said Fidencio Saldaña, HMS dean for students and assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

The first step is to make sure that students are aware of all the services and programming currently available to them and then to build from there, Saldaña said. To help inform students and improve access to existing resources, the school is piloting a new app, Thrive @ Harvard—HMS Health and Wellness.

The initiative’s goal is to assemble a holistic series of programs aimed at promoting wellness and mental health that integrates curricular, extracurricular and cultural activities and provides access to advising, mentorship and mental health resources, Saldaña said.

Many of these pieces already exist but some need to be enhanced, better integrated or made more accessible, Saldaña said, adding that a recently convened task force of students and faculty members has been working to integrate existing programs with new projects.

Saldaña is leading the initiative with the support of two co-chairs, Holly Gooding, HMS assistant professor of pediatrics and an adolescent and young adult medicine physician at Boston Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Robert Kitts, assistant professor of psychiatry and a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Boston Children’s Hospital.

The HMS initiative includes a strong component of student leadership, with more than 100 student members belonging to a wellness student interest group. The student group has launched Sharing Struggles and Building Resilience, a series of talks that highlights coping skills and promotes an inclusive, supportive school culture.

The kickoff talk, which focused on imposter syndrome—which makes people feel as if they aren’t good enough to be where they are in life—and the myth of effortless perfectionwhich is the mistaken idea that difficult things are easy for the people around us—was delivered Sept. 20 by Edward Hundert, dean for medical education and the Daniel D. Federman, M.D. Professor in Residence of Global Health and Social Medicine and Medical Education at HMS.

In the talk, Hundert acknowledged that almost everyone struggles at some point along their path to a career in medicine, and he emphasized how important it is for students to reach out for help.

Giving voice to these common struggles will hopefully encourage more MD students to feel safer asking for help, whether it be from a classmate, faculty or mental health provider, the leaders of the initiative said.

“Working together and supporting each other will make us a stronger community, and learning the skills of resilience will make our students better doctors,” Saldaña said.