Medical profession must 'walk the walk' about supporting people, like me, with mental health conditions – Catriona McVey

May is mental health month and I believe we should always be working to educate ourselves when it comes to mental health and being aware of what others around us could be going through. I myself am a medical student with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Being aware of mental health is great, but employers need to ensure support is more robust than vague notions of 'reaching out', says medical student Catriona McVey (Picture: John Devlin)

ADHD often isn’t diagnosed until adulthood – sufferers are often first misdiagnosed with depression and anxiety disorders during their teenage years, induced by the struggle of compensating for an unrecognised neurodevelopmental disorder.

I was finally diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 20, in the summer between my second and third year at medical school. Through raising awareness, the perceived stereotype of hyperactive little boys is beginning to change – adults, and especially women, can have ADHD too.

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Emotions in ADHD can often be described in three ways: fast-building, intense and short-lived. Put simply, we feel emotions a lot more strongly than our neurotypical peers. Even a fleeting emotion can become totally overwhelming – it’s something I’m constantly aware of in my chosen career.

ADHD often presents itself with other disorders such as dyslexia and autism, or psychiatric diagnoses – depression and anxiety are particularly common. All the struggles of compensating for a brain that doesn’t always cooperate with you can make people with ADHD feel a bit rubbish about themselves, so coupled with emotional dysregulation, a majority of those with ADHD will have experienced low mood at some point.

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I’m not ashamed to admit I have struggled with bouts of clinical depression and anxiety for the past decade. For years I struggled to keep on top of my mood, and the circumstances of lockdown have made this year at medical school particularly challenging for me. However, I’m finally on the perfect combination of medication, and I feel great.

I have become even more aware of the stigma associated with long-term mental health conditions: I’m frequently asked if I’m “better” now but I don’t believe that recovery has an end-point and I’m all too aware how easy it is to slip back into old patterns and not recognise the downward spiral until you’re in too deep.

I often see confusion when I explain that, actually I don’t plan on stopping any my meds now I feel better – it’s thanks to them that I do.

So many people are too anxious or scared to share their diagnoses publicly due to the familiar stigma of being any less than perfect, especially in medical school where perfectionism is rife – but so is being different. Medical schools are not factories; no two doctors are going to be the same, other than that we all have “imperfections”.

I want to see the medical profession “walk the walk” – being aware of mental health is great, but employers and educators need to ensure that support is more robust than vague notions of “reaching out”.

In the same way that not everyone will experience mental illness, not everyone with mental illness will experience it in the same way: one size does not fit all.

My neurodevelopmental disorder is lifelong. It’s not going to disappear, but medical careers might if the system, and the support it offers us, resists change.

Catriona McVey is third-year St Andrew University medical student and member of the BMA’s medical students committee

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