Healing the (future) healers

Cate Swannell
Med J Aust
Published online: 15 September 2014

Australia’s medical students are smart, educated about mental health, and very bad at seeking help for their own problems. The Australian Medical Students’ Association is out to change that.

Medical students, it turns out, are particularly good at hiding their mental health issues. And, given they have the highest rates of mental health issues of all Australian tertiary students, that is quite a problem.

In October of 2013, mental health advocacy group beyondblue released a report ( showing that one in five medical students had reported suicidal ideation in the past 12 months, and one in two had experienced emotional exhaustion in the same time period.

Those startling numbers prompted the Australian Medical Students’ Association, led by president Jessica Dean, to make tertiary student mental health one of its top priorities for the year.

Late last month, that decision came to fruition with the launch of AMSA’s Mental Health Campaign, a two-tiered initiative including the creation of resources such as the updated Keeping your grass greener guide (, designed to “to provide practical and relevant wellbeing advice to students”.

AMSA’s education platform, AMSA Academy, has also launched a short online course called Academy of the mind, which focuses on student “wellbeing, looking after your colleagues, and the broader issue of mental health and wellbeing from a public health perspective”.

Other initiatives include Blue Week, a week-long range of activities across Australian medical schools, featuring mental health literacy and reducing the stigma attached to mental illness; Get-A-GP, a database of general practitioners across Australia who bulk-bill medical students in order to encourage students to get their own GP; the AMSA Mentor Network, a national initiative seeking to bring together all those interested in the establishment of mentorships for medical students; and AMSA Community Action Network, a database of all the community and wellbeing initiatives across all medical societies in Australia.

Ms Dean says medical students are very good at hiding their mental distress.

“Two of the biggest signs of mental health issues among students generally, are absenteeism and falling marks”, she tells the MJA.

“But in medical students, social withdrawal, particularly around exams or particularly busy times, is quite normal. And their marks are usually the last thing to fall when they’re not coping. They tend to stop sleeping, stop eating and stop looking after themselves generally before they’ll ever let their marks drop.”

The perceived stigma of a mental illness is a major issue for medical students, she says.

“According the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only 23% of young people are accessing mental health services, and, according to the University of Sydney, even though medical students are very well informed about mental health, only 35% of them are accessing those services”, she says. “That’s not a big difference.

“Over 40% of medical students still see stigma about this issue within the medical community and that makes them reluctant to seek help.”

The AMSA Mentor Network could prove to be particularly helpful in identifying students who need help, Ms Dean says.

“Mentoring programs are great because mentors are very good at identifying when their mentees are not coping, but secondly, it turns out mentees are also very good at knowing when their mentors are not coping.”

Training university security staff — usually the first responders in on-campus emergencies — in mental health first aid is another initiative AMSA hopes to get off the ground.

On-campus activities such as Blue Week, are designed to “normalise” conversations about mental health issues, Ms Dean says.

“It may seem that our campaign is scattergun, and it is”, she says.

“But it seems short-sighted to think that one approach will be successful in what is a complex, multifaceted issue. We want to try and attack every single obstacle between medical students, and tertiary students generally, and mental health.

“Cultural change has to come from within, rather than from the top down, and we believe medical students are really well placed to help change the culture across tertiary communities.”

For more information about AMSA’s mental health campaign, visit the initiative’s website at You can also follow AMSA on Twitter (@yourAMSA).

Major partners with AMSA in the mental health campaign are the Australian Medical Association, beyondblue, the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, headspace, Orygen Youth Health, the General Practice Students’ Network, the Medical Deans of Australia and New Zealand, the Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, the Australian Defence Force and BOQ Specialist.

  • Cate Swannell



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