Faculty voice:

John Taylor: Impacting student well-being

Aug. 9, 2017

John Taylor is a licensed psychologist and director of the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine Office of Personal Counseling/Health Promotion.

A guiding principle of osteopathic medicine is its holistic perspective in helping patients maintain integrated function of the body, mind and spirit. Personal practice falls short for many student doctors and medical professionals. Rates of burnout, depression, alcohol dependence and suicidal risk are significantly higher for medical students, residents and early career physicians than the average person.

The reasons identified are many: long hours of studying, high stakes testing, residency competition, pressure to see increasing numbers of patients and challenges to normal life satisfaction and joy. Unfortunately, certain students may not seek out help until it is too late to pass their courses or perform as well as they might. All too often this pattern persists into medical practice where doctors fail to heed the warning signs of mental distress.  

Programs are being introduced at medical schools to increase early detection of concerns and positive attitudes toward self-care. The MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine CARE Team is a new initiative which promotes preventative help-seeking and using available mental health services. The goal is for students to develop career-lasting strategies for managing stress and boosting resiliency.

Resilient doctors rely on emotional self-awareness, self-compassion and other psychological tools to better buffer the inevitable life challenges all humans encounter.  Studies have shown a compelling positive relationship between physician self-reported life satisfaction and patient care satisfaction.   

“CARE” solely stands for what it means. The team comprises student support professionals within COM and caters exclusively to medical students at all training levels. Guidelines for referring COM students are posted in high visibility areas at the college’s East Lansing, Macomb University and Detroit Medical Center sites.     

The CARE Team encourages the COM community to assist medical students who may not recognize or otherwise be inclined to seek out help for their problems. What seems superficially inappropriate or unprofessional behavior may reflect underlying mental health issues. Whether in the classroom or hospital systems across the state, students can also directly reach out to the CARE Team.   

Each student referral is handled sensitively and kept strictly confidential. If a student is showing signs of academic difficulty, for example, an academic advisor may reach out.  Or if there is a change in student behavioral demeanor, such as withdrawing from classmates, a mental health counselor makes contact. Outreach from the CARE Team is aimed at providing reassurance while offering support. It is up to the student to accept help.   

Immediate action is required for students showing signs of suicidal risk or harm to oneself or others. This protocol requires calling 911 for assistance or arranging transportation to a hospital emergency room.   

The Office of Personal Counseling/Health Promotion serves as a key partner on the CARE Team and provides in-house mental health services to COM students including crisis intervention, consultation and referral, and ongoing counseling with licensed therapists.   Programming includes workshops on medical student well-being, meditation groups, peer-to-peer mentoring, alcohol and other substance abuse education, and suicide prevention training for the entire school community.   

Times are changing at COM. Faculty, staff and peers alike are encouraging students to take advantage of the CARE Team and available mental health services. In the dozen cases referred so far all students have been receptive to a friendly offer of support. Data on the effectiveness of the CARE Team model is yet to come, although the program shows promise for the holistic betterment of MSUCOM’s students and future doctors.  

For more information go to www.com.msu.edu and click on “MSUCOM CARE Team.”  Referrals may be made by including the student’s name and sending a brief description of any concerns to the following e-mail address at MSUCOMCARETeam@hc.msu.edu