A little less than a year ago, a fourth-year medical student named Kathryn jumped out of her apartment window. She died later at the hospital where she was studying, before her dad had time to call back about the messages her classmate left on his phone.
David Muller, MD, wrote about her death in an op ed in the New England Journal of Medicine. He describes in detail the days following her death, the reaction of other students in her class, his worries about how her death would affect the first-year students, the questions her mother had, and how he feels he, the school, and a culture expecting perfection had failed Kathryn.
"Every time students achieve what looks to the rest of us like a successful milestone — getting into a great college, the medical school of their choice, a residency in a competitive clinical specialty — it is to some of them the opening of another door to a haunted house, behind which lie demons, suffocating uncertainty, and unimaginable challenges," he wrote.
He's not wrong. New research published in the Canadian Medical Education Journal found that although medical students are much more stressed than their peers, they are not better at coping with that stress.
Kathryn's death highlighted the problem for Muller, who had thought the school had adequate measures for mental health in place.
In his meetings with students in the following days, he found that some also believed there were already enough resources to take care of their mental health, but some felt the school had ignored their needs.
"There were students who publicly expressed their rage at not feeling adequately supported, at being ignored when they had been working so hard to provide us with feedback and suggestions, at knowing that they and their friends were also struggling with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation," he wrote.
A big part of the problem, Muller realized, was a curriculum that put too much stress on students to not only succeed, but also be the best.
Since Kathryn's death, the school has made efforts to change the way students are assessed. The school has "committed ourselves to a genuine paradigm shift in the way we define performance and achievement," Muller wrote.
It's an important change, and will hopefully mean that the doctors who take care of us are able to take care of themselves, too.
Correction: this story originally named Dr. Stuart Slavin as the author on the paper about Kathryn's death. The author is actually Dr. David Muller.