Vulnerability as Strength: The Student Mental Health Panel

Emerson Wheeler '22
Emerson Wheeler ’22

By Emerson Wheeler ’22

The Wellness Committee mental health panel discussed in this blog post pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic and physical distancing guidelines. The College plans to resume this important program when students are able to meet in-person again.

“I’ve never been on a panel before. What if I get asked a weird question and don’t know how to respond? Or what if I say something dumb? And I hate talking in front of people…”

“Emerson, isn’t this why you’re on the Wellness Committee in the first place—to help the rest of us feel less alone? Honestly, I was thinking about being on the panel and knowing you’ll be there is reassuring.”

This conversation with a friend of mine replayed in my head as I walked through the Given Building to Med Ed 200, where the mental health panel was about to begin at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine. Each semester, the Wellness Committee hosts this panel and each one has been unique. I remember sitting in the audience as a first year among 60 of my peers, listening to students from other classes open up about their struggles during medical school, and thinking, Oh, thank god. It’s okay if things don’t go perfectly this year.

Now, I sat in the front of the room with the other panelists and watched as 70 students listened to us speak. I heard close friends tell the audience about things that I had no idea they had gone through. They talked of eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety, family deaths, medical emergencies, and trauma. And I was struck by just how important this confidential space—without administrators or faculty present—is for students and residents. Even though we talked regularly and cared deeply for each other, there were significant things that my peers had been struggling with that I had no knowledge of, and things I revealed that I had largely kept to myself until this day.

The mental health panel, for me, serves as a semiannual reminder that we all have to put our own life vests on first. We can’t expect to serve our communities to the best of our abilities if we’re drowning as we do so. We can’t expect life not to happen. There’s an unhealthy culture in medicine; many peers have told me about already feeling pressure to be invincible, to be perfect, to be able-bodied, neurotypical, thin, fit…but I’d be hard pressed to find a medical student or physician who hasn’t experienced imposter syndrome. And it would be very difficult to find a person, in general, to whom nothing bad has ever happened. With the suicide rates amongst physicians already so high, why make it harder on each other by bottling things up and feeling more alone? It’s taken me a long time to realize that being a human being isn’t a weakness. Vulnerability is a type of strength, and the struggles we face as people outside of the hospital make us more empathetic physicians.

To be completely transparent, I hesitated to be on the mental health panel and I hesitated to write this blog post. I spent a lot of time thinking about sharing the impact of my mental health—on my professional development, my career prospects, my residency choices. But then I realized that my friend – the one I had the conversation with that gave me courage just before the panel  – was right. This is why I serve on the Wellness Committee. Things like the mental health panel, and the concept of radical vulnerability—they’re at the core of who I am as a person. This is the work that invigorates me, that makes me feel passionate, and that personally helps me fight my own burnout. Seemingly small things like this (although they don’t seem small when your hands are so clammy) are how structural change occurs, and how dangerous stigma is broken down. The vulnerability, strength, and compassion each panelist showed as they encouraged their fellow classmates and colleagues to reach out to them for anything at all filled me with so much hope. As I watched each of my colleagues write their contact information on the board behind them after speaking, I can honestly say I had never been prouder to be a member of the Larner College of Medicine community.

What are your thoughts about this topic?