I recently saw a news story reporting that a single medical school, Des Moines (IA) University, has made it mandatory for medical students to learn how to care for patients with mental illness.
Funny. I would have thought that was already happening in medical schools across the country. Apparently not. Although medical schools teach prospective doctors to diagnose mental illness, the article notes, they do not require students to learn how to care for the mentally ill. When the class started in 2018, it was an elective, but it later became a requirement.
The curriculum includes having people in recovery from mental illness, loved ones of patients, and healthcare providers speak to the class. It is hoped that this will combat the stigma that arises from student doctors only seeing mental patients on locked wards when they are in severe crisis.
Of course, confinement on a locked ward is not typical for people with SMI. Many people with bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia, for example, require inpatient treatment only occasionally, spending the majority of their lives receiving treatment, medication, and therapy as outpatients. One wonders if the stigma surrounding mental patients extends to them as well. Do some GPs tend to ignore physical disorders while focusing on the mental ones? It’s fairly well known that doctors sometimes focus on a person’s weight as being the cause of all their symptoms instead of looking for (or testing for) other conditions. Might there be a similar narrowing of focus regarding mental patients?
Looking at the course, the answer may be yes. Interestingly, the main concern in developing the course seems to be that because doctors were so uncomfortable treating psychiatric patients that they focused on the SMI and never diagnosed and treated conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and other medical problems. Professor Dr. Lisa Streyfeller cites what she calls “really horrifying statistics that folks with severe mental illnesses die on average 15 to 30 years earlier than people who don’t have those illnesses.”
As important as it is that people with SMI receive treatment for their psychiatric conditions, physicians need to be aware that such people have physical needs and illnesses as well. And as encouraging as it is that mental patients themselves, and their loved ones and caregivers, are included in the curriculum, the article made no mention of teaching prospective doctors how to interact with mental patients they encounter in their practices. If such courses do not exist in medical schools other than DMU, where are doctors going to learn how to talk with and understand the many, many patients they will have who suffer with anxiety, depression, mania, anorexia, and the dozens of other diagnoses?
In some communities, first responders such as police and EMS workers are beginning to have mental health practitioners go on “ride-alongs” to help educate emergency personnel on how to handle situations involving the mentally distressed. Classes like the one at DMU (if others existed) could benefit from having students “ride along,” doing internships or rotations with established doctors who treat the physical as well as the mental symptoms of their patients. Perhaps psychiatric rotations in medical schools could include student practice in community or campus mental health centers instead of just locked wards. Perhaps medical schools could involve students in role-plays involving speaking with and treating the mentally ill, the way they sometimes do for prospective doctors’ encounters with terminal patients.
With NAMI reporting that 1 in 5 U.S. adults – 20% – experience mental illness each year and that
1 in 25 U.S. adults – 4% – experience serious mental illness each year, the odds are overwhelming that future doctors will need to learn how to treat patients both physically and mentally, as well as simply on a human level.
Here’s hoping that the DMU model class idea spreads – and that medical school education on mental health someday will be covered more thoroughly than a single class and a visit to the locked ward.