The Case for an Open Discussion of Mental Health in Medical Education

By Allison Griffin

“Being a good doctor is about more than scientific knowledge. It also requires an understanding of people,” said Darrell G. Kirch, MD, president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Kirch was referring to the 2015 MCAT, which will include a new section on the psychological, social, and biological foundations of behavior.

The new section will challenge students and prepare them to be doctors who understand the socio-cultural and behavioral influences of health. It will test the ways in which psychology and sociology influence a variety of factors including people’s perceptions and reactions to the world, cultural and social differences that influence well-being, and the relationships among socio-economic factors.

As a rising college senior, I can understand the trepidation that students who will take the “new” MCAT are experiencing: another set of classes to take, more material to study, and rewiring your brain to examine situations differently. But the MCAT changes are a leading indicator of an important health care movement.

In the past, the topic of mental health treatment carried a negative stigma. The only way to fix this is through education. While mental illness is not always discussed openly, the truth is that one in every five kids in the United States has a mental disorder, yet only 21 percent of those receive treatment.  Approximately half of the American population will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime. A report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) estimates that 45.6 million American adults suffered from mental illness in 2011: 19.6 percent of the adult population. Of that 45.6 million, only 38.2 percent received any sort of mental health services.

With mental illness affecting so many, one has to wonder why there is not more open discussion and why people aren’t receiving the quality care they need. The Obama administration has worked to destigmatize the issue through educating the general population, encouraging those who struggle to seek treatment, and providing more resources to ensure individuals have access to care.

What does a need for greater access to mental health resources for those in need have to do with the added MCAT section? In a word, everything. Mental health is often overlooked as cause of illness. However, an individual’s level of mental health directly affects their physical health. Depression, stress disorders, and many other mental disorders directly affect the body. Various cancer studies show the benefits of including psychology treatment in increasing overall health in a patient’s overall treatment plan.

A recent study from the University of Cambridge urges people to get a mental health check just as often as they get a physical. It calls attention to the logic that mental health and physical health are not separate entities. For example, mental and physical health can be improved simultaneously through exercise. Thusly, it is imperative for doctors to understand the implications of mental and physical health to truly treat an individual, as you cannot cure one without the other.

Doctors will encounter will patients who might have symptoms or signs of a mental illness; and an ability to understand the patient’s needs and communicate with the patient is crucial. Understanding the symptoms and implication will not only help the movement in our population, but will help the students truly learn their craft, gain a larger understanding of the socio-cultural and behavioral elements.

Allison GriffinAllison Griffin is a former Health Care Affairs intern at the AAMC, where she conducted research on graduate medical education. She is a senior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, studying political science, psychology, and neuroscience.

2 thoughts on “The Case for an Open Discussion of Mental Health in Medical Education

  1. Excellent research and analogy. The links that support the research were accurate and helped me to understand the full ramifications of the changes. It looks like Allison and future healthcare providers will be quite successful.

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