Medical Minds Matter: Valuing the mental health of future health professionals

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“How would you describe the process of transitioning from a pre-med student to a doctor?” I asked my roommate. 

“Trauma,” she said. 

After being subjected to hours of biology courses, anatomy lessons and organic chemistry labs — and the other countless requirements for pre-med undergraduate students — hard work doesn’t stop after graduation. Assuming you’ve already been accepted, medical school is the epitome of being put through the wringer, cramming to learn everything about human medicine in four years. 

Following that, residency is usually a three to seven-year ordeal that involves performing all the tasks a doctor does, except you find yourself in a subordinate position, getting paid a fraction of what the average doctor earns. And once that period ends, finally, you become a doctor, where handling people’s lives through trauma, tragedy and pain becomes a normal part of work life. 

In short, being a pre-med student is merely the beginning of a long and stressful journey toward a long and stressful career, and most of your time as a pre-med student is spent dreading what comes next. Surely all of this takes a toll, and for some it’s more than others. As someone who earned his degree in molecular cell biology, University of Connecticut alum Derek Pan saw the detrimental effects of this phenomenon and decided to take the initiative by founding Medical Minds Matter. 

As described on its website, “Medical Minds Matter is a volunteer-led startup nonprofit organization that seeks to transform the narrative of mental health in the medical field through storytelling, community-building and grassroots advocacy efforts.” The organization provides outlets for members of the medical community around the world through a platform called “AnonyMed Initiative,” where members can share their mental health struggles anonymously. They strive to promote advocacy through collaborations with institutions and other organizations, and their goal “is to become a nationwide movement with chapters at medical schools and healthcare workplaces all across the United States” — UConn included. 

The UConn Medical Minds Matter chapter was founded in April 2021 as a place for fellow pre-med majors to come together and participate in a community effort to alleviate the burdens of the medical journey. General body meetings are held biweekly, with many new events and opportunities lined up for the semester, including a healthcare panel. 

Saumya Vodapally, a seventh-semester molecular and cell biology and WGSS double-major, is president of the board. She went over the plans for the panel in detail, while also discussing upcoming speakers from UConn Health and a new mentoring program. 

“Whether it be med students, residents, fellows, physicians or pre-meds themselves, it’s basically for them to come and speak about their own struggles and what they’ve been going through and just create a safe space for open discussion,” Vodapally said. “We’re also planning on bringing in some students from the UConn Health chapter and having those med students come and talk to our pre-meds and all of us about it. We have a big-little program that we wanna do that pairs underclassmen with upperclassmen who have similar majors and similar interests so underclassmen can have someone to talk to and ask for advice for classes and just how to go about that process.” 

Vodapally went on to describe her reasoning for joining the chapter. 

“I think the reason why I joined personally is a lot of people close to me are in the medical field — my dad, my brother, my sister-in-law — so it hits really close to home when I hear about what they’re going through and I see what they’re going through first-hand,” Vodapally said. “When I see my own personal friends or roommates going through the same things, it’s really hard to see and to know that in this community in general, a lot of people are going through that but they don’t have the space to talk about it. Seeing our friend Derek [Pan] address that and wanting to create a safe space for that throughout the country was something that once I saw, I definitely wanted to be a part of.” 

Every stage of the medical field, from starting as an undergraduate to finishing as a licensed physician (and even beyond that), is notorious for causing chronic distress. This perpetuates the unhealthy assumption that poor mental health ought to be anticipated and thus glossed over, rather than acknowledged and remedied. The board’s vice president fifth-semester molecular and cell biology major Sumeet Kadian, provided his insight on the matter. 

“Yesterday at our general body meeting, we displayed some statistics,” said Kadian, who holds an individualized study in healthcare. “We have 304 physicians committing suicide [on average] each year, which is double the rate of the general population. We have 40 percent of physicians avoiding seeking care because [of the risk of losing] their license, and then a quarter of pre-meds feeling stress and anxiety all the time. Just looking at these statistics is staggering enough, but then you begin to think, ‘Well, physicians are meant to care for people, right?’ And the irony is that they’re not caring for themselves.” 

When asked about his opinions on the mental health services offered by UConn, Kadian expressed that while programs like Student Health and Wellness have attempted to improve their accessibility, students are still reluctant to utilize that accessibility for themselves. 

“I think SHaW is trying to make improvements,” Kadian said. “I think they’re trying to improve their hours, they’re trying to improve their accessibility to people. People know how to access them; I think it’s making sure people are comfortable accessing them and knowing when to access them. Because I feel like sometimes students think — I’ve seen this in pre-med culture and I’m sure it expands to other fields too — people are just like ‘Oh, what I’m going through is normal, everybody goes through it, it’s fine, it’s fine,’ but then they avoid seeking help because they think it’s stigmatized or they think it’s wrong to see it as a problem. So primarily, the issue boils down to making sure that students understand it’s okay to seek help, that it should not be a problem and that it’s encouraged.” 

In answering the same question, Vodapally emphasized the significance of students taking it upon themselves to create safe spaces and look out for each other when institutional services can’t seem to offer effective solutions. 

“We wanna acknowledge that there are resources on campus, but in case those aren’t working, we can’t just solely rely on those,” Vodapally said. “It’s kind of working around the system and realizing that there are flaws in it and those are inevitable and we can’t really do that much to change them. So, creating a different outlet, saying ‘Hey, even if this isn’t working for you, you can come to us’ — these are other ways that you can seek that help and talk to people. We’re here for you, come talk to us, we’re going through the same things as you.” 

Medical Minds Matter is geared toward ensuring medical minds are cared for in the same manner they would care for future patients — that all health, especially mental health, would be prioritized by those meant to aid it. Building a community to battle these struggles together and further each other’s medical journeys is what the UConn chapter is all about. 

For more information regarding the Medical Minds Matter chapter at UConn, be sure to visit @mmm_uconn on Instagram. 

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