By: Daniel R. George, Ph.D., M.Sc. | July 7, 2022
"This post is authored by Mariam Shalaby, a 4th-year medical student at Penn State College of Medicine"
"It is a tumultuous time in the U.S.—politically and socially—and many of us in the field of mental health are additionally tasked with the responsibility of caring for the emotional needs of others. This can be taxing, even for someone like myself who is a medical student training in psychiatry. What are practical steps we can take to maintain a productive and caring presence amidst national turmoil?
A day in the life of a mental health trainee
As a fourth-year medical student, I spend a month at a time training in different locations. Recently, I have been training at the local psychiatric hospital, where patients are cared for when their mental illness leads them to be at risk of harm to themselves and/or others, or unable to care for themselves.
Waking up on a recent Wednesday morning, the first thing did was check my phone. Texts from loved ones working through personal problems flooded my screen. I sent a quick reply — “Thinking of you” — before switching apps to scroll through cute cat videos interspersed with passionate 30-second video clips about baby formula shortages and another school shooting. I clicked my phone screen off before taking a deep breath and getting ready for the day.
Driving to the hospital, I noticed the fluffy clouds and the blue sky above me. It was a pretty June day—a peaceful morning. Merging onto the highway, I noticed the car in front of me. Pink paint emblazoned on its trunk exclaimed: “PAWS OFF ABORTION! STOP CONTROLLING WOMEN.” My chest tightened.
I walked into the hospital and sat down for rounds, which is when the team meets with every patient to talk about how they’ve been and discuss their treatment plan. We interviewed eight patients in a row. When I asked one patient what led her to attempt suicide, she looked at me in the eye and said, matter-of-factly, “I was sexually abused by my father as a child, I have struggled with cocaine use for many years, and I am dealing with unresolved grief from the loss of my husband due to overdose.” I gulped, and said, “I’m so sorry to hear that.” Inside, I panicked: What is going on, and how are we going to fix it?
Finally, we finished rounds. I took a break for lunch at the neighborhood Italian bakery and noticed an enormous plywood sign in front of one of the houses across the street: “FROM IRELAND TO PALESTINE, OCCUPATION IS A CRIME” it screamed at me in black spray paint. I took a deep breath and tried to notice the taste of my pizza and the sound of the birds. The time passed too quickly, and soon it was time to return to work.
When I finally arrived home at the end of the day, I felt drained. I had little energy to do anything at all. And it was only four o’clock; I had gotten home early. I resorted to looking at my phone, and found myself once again watching silly videos that left me feeling just as tired as when I got home.
I’m grateful that, like many other professional Americans, my basic needs for food, water, and safety are met. And I’m grateful to serve in a role that helps others find stability in their lives. But these days, a sense of vigilance and worry often consumes me. Many of us wake up daily to an overstimulating digital atmosphere, a turbulent sociopolitical landscape, and an emotionally taxing job. I walked through the day on edge, alert for threat.
While there are practical ways of responding to outside threats to our senses of security and calm, such as participating in activism about causes we care about and doing our best to care for patients, addressing inner sensations of stress in response to those threats isn’t always so clear. Simply telling myself to “calm down” doesn’t work. Trust me, I’ve tried. That said, here are a few things that I have found to be helpful: