Studies Find Depression Common in Medical School

(CN) – More than a quarter of medical students are depressed, many of whom reported thoughts of suicide during medical school.

Among medical students with depression, only 16 percent sought professional help for their symptoms, according to a review of nearly 200 studies published in the Dec. 5 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“It’s kind of paradoxical, given that they should recognize the signs better than anyone,” said Douglas Mata, study co-author and resident at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Mata and his colleagues conducted a meta-analysis of research involving 129,000 undergraduate medical trainees in 47 nations, which allowed them to measure levels of depression, depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation across multiple groups.

In the 195 studies that qualified for the review, 27 percent of medical students had depression or symptoms of it, while 11 percent reported thoughts of suicide.

“The present analysis builds on recent work demonstrating a high prevalence of depression among resident physicians, and the concordance between the summary prevalence estimates (27.2 percent in students versus 28.8 percent in residents) suggests that depression is a problem affecting all levels of medical training,” the authors write.

While the overall statistics are high, depression and thoughts of suicide were not nearly as common in some groups – 27 percent of medical students overall are depressed, with the estimates ranging from a low of 9 percent in one study to 56 in another.

The team attributes the rates of depression and suicidal thoughts to the stressful nature of medical school, which is often highly competitive.

“Possible causes of depressive and suicidal symptomatology in medical students likely include stress and anxiety secondary to the competitiveness of medical school,” the team writes. “Restructuring medical school curricula and student evaluations might ameliorate these stresses.”

The team also encouraged future research into how strongly depression in medical school predicts depression during a residency, and whether treatments to reduce such symptoms for one group can work for both groups.

“Taken together, these data suggest that depressive and suicidal symptoms in medical trainees may adversely affect the long-term health of physicians as well as the quality of care delivered in academic medical centers,” the team writes.