It takes on average somewhere between 10 and 20 years for someone with bipolar disorder to be correctly diagnosed. Not even to be treated. Just diagnosed. And that's the people who ever get diagnosed at all in their lifetime. Most don't. How many other medical conditions do we let slip that far particularly when we have tested, effective treatments readily available? Educating doctors is crucial...
It's an almost funny twist of fate that this former class clown and serial daydreamer would present at a plenary to a cohort of med students. I had a pretty good run at studying when I was a kid (I was actually going to be a vet at one point) but that wasn't to last when the reality of high school set in.
I was first invited to speak to the UNSW second year med students around 5 or 6 years ago and I've been going back to talk at the same plenary to a new group every year since. They actually based a little chunk of the course on me and my story as a case study. I genuinely get a lot out of these talks. It's an area that's often forgotten in our conversations around mental health education. There's focus put on education for school students, men, and other hard to reach groups but we don't often seem to discuss education for the people who provide healthcare to us.
I can't really overstate how important this is to get right.
The people who are going to grow up to diagnose and treat us, our loved ones, and our little ones are being trained right now to do that job. They're at a time of their careers where they're learning a hell of a lot about many areas of medicine and mental illness is such a different animal in many ways to other physical ailments. My intention here is to illustrate the human side to mental healthcare. I'd hate to see doctors thinking about mental health in a 'textbook' fashion and lose the reality of it. I kind of preemptively take them to task on it by saying that this course isn't about getting good marks. Good marks should be an indicator of your progress toward your goal, not as the goal itself. I'm usually quite pleasant in my talks but with med students I need to be a bit more direct because if they don't pay attention or take it onboard they can inadvertently cause massive potential damage. The research has been done to inform clinical screening questions that are meant to be asked by doctors when patients present with (unipolar) depression. These very few simple questions are often not asked at all. That needs to change.
So I spoke to the second years again yesterday and they were great! They all sat up and listened and wanted to know more. I saw a genuine interest in patient care with this group and that's exactly what's needed. It's not even about being good at bedside manner. It's about combining a care and an interest in people with a deep knowledge of medicine and an unrelenting commitment to diagnosing and treating until it works. Until the patient is full of life again and can resume enjoying it.
I hope this lesson lasts with these students. There's a lot riding on it.