Doctors in training at risk of depression and burn out

Student Merle Winkelmann practices listening to the chest. A realistic-sounding heartbeat can be heard from inside the model. (Image: Universitätsklinikum Erlangen)
Student Merle Winkelmann practices listening to the chest. A realistic-sounding heartbeat can be heard from inside the model. (Image: Universitätsklinikum Erlangen)

FAU studies show medical students are at risk and highlight possible solutions

Medicine is a subject which can be particularly demanding for students. As a consequence, many medical students show signs of stress-related disorders such as depression and anxiety, even in the early stages of their studies. These are the findings of a recent study by researchers at FAU. In their work the researchers also developed strategies that students can learn at an early stage to reduce stress-related risk factors.

‘We noticed that over the years students have been coming to lecturers during their office hours and reporting stress and anxiety about examinations more and more often,’ say Prof. Dr. Michael Scholz from FAU’s Institute of Anatomy and Dr. Pascal Burger from Klinik Meissenburg – a clinic in Zug, Switzerland, which specialises in psychiatry and psychotherapy – who led the team behind the study. This prompted the FAU researchers to carry out a study of medical students over several years, from when they started at the University to when they took their first State Examination at the end of their fourth semester. The students filled out questionnaires on various aspects of their mental state which were then evaluated scientifically.

The results showed that at the beginning of their studies, the medical students’ mental health was the same as that of the general population. However, as they advanced through the semesters, the number of cases of depression, anxiety and burn out increased considerably. At the end of the students’ second year, the number of students with at least a mild form of depression was almost twice as high as compared with new students. At the same time, fewer and fewer students were able to take a break from the pressures of their studies, studying for days or weeks at a time without longer breaks, for example, and were therefore more at risk of suffering from burn out. The more extreme this method of studying was, the more severe the symptoms of stress were among the students.

‘If doctors in training are taught to manage patients’ health, they must also be taught to manage their own stress,’ the researchers conclude. After all, people working in the medical profession must deal with considerable mental strain, starting at university and continuing throughout their careers. In a subsequent study the FAU researchers investigated how effective certain techniques were for coping with stress. As part of an elective course, students were introduced to relaxation techniques such as autogenic training and progressive muscle relaxation. The aim was to teach the students these techniques in such a way that they would be able to use them independently and regularly afterwards. The results were clear: the participants’ mental state had improved considerably by the end of the course.

‘Although only FAU students took part in our studies, the results can be transferred to other universities, as studies carried out at other German universities and internationally showed similar results,’ explains Professor Scholz. In light of their findings the researchers now plan to offer medical students an elective course on relaxation techniques for stress management on a regular basis, starting from the next winter semester.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Michael Scholz
Phone: +49 9131 8526745

Addition information