Welfare and Wellbeing at Medical School

Going to university can be stressful for lots of students for a variety of reasons and lots of students manage existing or new mental health and wellbeing needs while they study. We’ve written this guide in collaboration with Leah, @wellnessmedic, to explain how you can look after your own welfare at medical school, and where and how to ask for help while at university. 

Read more about Leah and her story

Hello, my name is Leah, and I’m a medical student at the University of Sheffield. In 2021 I had to take time out of my degree due to Depression and Anxiety, because I wasn’t managing very well. From then on, I realised I had to drastically re-evaluate my mindset. My priority had to change. I love my course, I love learning, but my mental health had to come first. Whilst this seems utterly terrifying – how does one put their mental health first at uni, exam season is soul crushing! – but when I shifted my focus to be my mental health over my education I noticed several things: 

  1. I performed better on placement 
  2. I had more energy to engage with others inside and outside of university 
  3. I got the highest grades I had received at medical school

And MOST importantly, I was genuinely happier. 

This isn’t to say I don’t still have bad days, I do. In fact I would go as far as to suggest a good cry once in a while is what we all need!

I still stress over exams, get anxious about my classes and assignments, but it’s different now. I know that I have a  support system, I know the habits which bring my stability, and I know myself on a level I can be kind to myself. 

Looking after your mental health at university is a journey in itself surrounded by lots of changes – moving out, new friends, new city, new learning styles, new exams (oh so overwhelming). But be kind to yourself, and know you can seek support.

Managing your welfare at medical school: Leah’s advice

Though I seek support through others from various areas, the biggest support I have is from … myself! This wasn’t a quick relationship I formed, and it took me a long time to trust myself with my own mental health, but I’m now at the place where I feel I can do so. If you feel this way too, I’ve listed some top tips below that work really well for me personally – but remember help is always available, and what works well for me, may not work for you, we all have different journeys and obstacles to tackle. 

Just like Dolly, I’m working 9 to 5 

Medical school, especially in the early years, can feel like a massive shift from school. From being in consistently 8:45 to 3:30 everyday, to having a timetable that might be anything from 9am to 5pm, to 9am to 10am, and placement times could be completely different altogether. 

Being a medical student means our placement and or teaching may not fit exactly into the 9-5 box, but my studying does. This means I know when the books are being packed away, and everyday I know when to take time for myself. Even during exam season the books close at 7pm latest. 

This may seem shocking if you’ve spent time on TikTok and seen the 12 hour study days and all-nighters associated with medical school culture, and whilst that may work for some (very few!) I always knew that wouldn’t work for my mental wellbeing. I’ve found since doing this, I am more efficient with my time, and my productivity increases. For example, I use spaced repetition and active recall to make my knowledge retention more efficient. 

It is okay to take a mental health day if you need it

You wake up, sore throat, sneezing, a migraine throbbing in your head. You shuffle to the kettle for a cup of tea and your body aches, you have the flu, are you going to your 9-5 lectures followed by society practice? Likely no. Do you feel guilty? No, of course not, you’re ill!

We hold physical health and mental health to two separate standards, finding ourselves pushing through a day when our mental health is bad (which I find usually just means I’m worse the following day), but being kind to ourselves when our physical health is bad. 

There is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a day off as a ‘mental health day’. In fact, many Universities now have this option on their sickness forms.

If taking a day to yourself to focus on your mental health will lead to you feeling mentally calmer and rejuvenated I would highly encourage it – however if you notice they are becoming consistent please speak to someone you trust and a healthcare professional for support. 

Don’t stop those hobbies!

Medical school has the image of being filled with stressful placements, long days, tiresome hours in the library, and whilst that can sometimes be the case, it is vital you keep the hobbies you enjoy and practise them regularly. The first sign someone noticed from me that my mental health had dropped was my cessation of my favourite hobby: reading. I love reading and have done since I was little: I would typically read for a minimum of an hour a day. When my depression became severe the books collected dust. I didn’t feel I deserved my cherished hobby because I should be studying instead, to be a better medical student, a better doctor one day. 

However, before you are a medical student, before you are a future doctor, you are a human, and so much more than your education. Hobbies are so essential for this, it helps create balance in your life, and brings you happiness. Try and keep up your hobbies throughout medical school, time management is huge for this. 

Also take the time to find your passions outside of medicine and pursue them! Being a medical student is a great time to start following these interests, and will spark your brain in different places – something I’ve found hugely beneficial for my mental health. For example outside of being a medical student I am a content creator, the COO for an incredible non-for-profit Future Frontline which supports the current and next generation of healthcare students and professionals, a public speaker, student voice for a school-based podcast, a dog walker, Personal Assistant (working is possible!), and a cat mum to my lovely boy Ralph.

Whilst it seems like a lot, all these things benefit my mental health greatly and reminds me I’m so much more than my degree. I’ve also always been open about my mental health with those around me in these areas, and have always been met with understanding and appreciation of my openness. 

There’s so much more I could tell you I do, but ultimately it’s different for everyone, and trial and error is usually the way forward with these things, but just know you can get there. Start with small, manageable steps, like treating yourself to that book you really wanted or going to that football club, never quit your passions and always do things that make you happy.

To recap, Leah’s key messages are: 
Find a working routine that works for you – it might be 9-5, or something a little bit different. Make sure to keep time for yourself. 
Take time off when you need it – be generous with yourself. 
Continue with your hobbies and keep having fun. 

Where to find support while at university 

Some students find that they struggle with their wellbeing or mental health while at university. It can be a big change. Universities have lots of systems and ways they can support their students. 

  • 🔗 Disabled Students Allowance: DSA covers students with a mental health condition and provides financial support if it affects your ability to study. It’s worth looking into this and applying! 
  • GP: Your GP can provide mental health and wellbeing guidance. Some universities have nurses available on-campus, too. 🔗 DocReady is a useful service which can help you prepare to speak to your GP about how you are feeling, or try 🔗 this guide. 
  • Online wellbeing portals: some universities provide access to online wellbeing portals and support. 
  • University counselling service: universities usually have trained counsellors who provide free sessions to students. 
  • 🔗 Nightline: Nightline is a free overnight listening service which provides peer-to-peer support for students. The phone number depends on your university. You can find the number on the website. 
  • Academic support e.g. from your personal tutor: each student will be assigned a personal tutor who supports your academic development. You can let them know if you’re feeling overwhelmed or in need of help. 
  • Placement supervisor: if you are feeling overwhelmed at placement, then this might be the best place to start. Tell them how you’re feeling, what’s going on, and what you think you need in terms of support. Placement can be a stressful time and sometimes emotionally challenging if you are dealing with a challenging scenario, so it’s important to remember that your placement supervisor is there to support you through that. 
  • Student Union/Student Affairs: Universities have student support available through departments and Student Unions, and they can support you with most things, including if you are worried about your deadlines, exams, mental health and wellbeing, or if you need support after an incident or event. 
  • Friends, family, and your personal networks: don’t forget you can rely on those around you in your personal life to support you. It might be difficult to disclose certain things, but if you feel you can turn to friends and/or family, this might be helpful.
  • 🔗 Student Minds: a national charity supporting students with mental wellbeing. They offer a variety of resources and support: 
    • 🔗 Student Space: a website full of resources and support, including real student stories. 
    • 🔗 Support a Friend: this resource is designed for students who are worried about a friend. 
    • 🔗 Year Abroad: for students on a year abroad, this resource provides wellbeing support. 

Remember there are other services there to help you if you are experiencing an acute mental health problem: 

🔗 Shout: text 85258 for free, confidential mental health support via text. 

🔗 Samaritans: ring 116 123 in the UK and Ireland or email: jo@samaritans.org for free, confidential support 

🔗 Papyrus: free support for young people considering suicide. Ring 0800 068 4141; text 07860 039967; email pat@papyrus-uk.org 

111: Ring 111 for urgent medical advice.

999: if there is an emergency ring 999 for urgent medical treatment or visit A&E if you are able to get there safely.

Written in collaboration with Leah Brooks

Leah (she/her) is a fourth year Medical Student at the University of Sheffield and mental health advocate. She has interests in mental health awareness, self-confidence boosting and widening access into healthcare courses, and is also an aspiring General Practitioner. Leah uses her social media platform @wellnessmedic to talk openly about her mental health journey with depression and anxiety, medical school, lifestyle and self-confidence. Alongside her studies she is also COO of Future Frontline, a not-for-profit aimed at inspiring and supporting current and future healthcare students and professionals. She provides Student Voice for Unitasterdays, aimed at providing insight to students, parents and teachers about University and has previously collaborated with organisations such as UCAS, The Uni Guide, Coppafeel and more.