Put your own oxygen mask on first: Helping medical students develop good self-care habits

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By Janet Roloson, M.Ed., Chartered Psychologist

When you are on an airplane, you may have noticed how the flight attendant instructs you to put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others. This is important because if you run out of oxygen, you cannot help others with their oxygen masks – or with anything else. The same general principle applies to self-care in any context. Research suggests that good habits of self-care may begin to suffer in medical school; the pace and pressure of work can “push” self-care off to the side of a medical student’s priority list. In the longer term, the self-care habits medical students employ can also influence their performance as physicians. Taking good care of oneself is a central foundation for being able to provide good care to one’s patients (Ball & Bax, 2002).

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Janet Roloson

If you are feeling as though you are treading water in medical school, you are not alone. Virtually all students will experience significant stress and pressure during their time in medical school; in some cases, this can develop into anxiety or depressive symptoms. This can interfere with a student’s ability to function effectively, and may prevent them from achieving at their full potential.

My name is Janet Roloson and I am the designated counsellor for The School of Medicine. My office is located with Health, Counselling, and Disability Services (HCDS) in the LaSalle Building on the second floor.

I am employed to offer counselling to medical students and residents; my affiliation is with HCDS. As such, services are offered at an arm’s length from the School of Medicine for the purposes of maintaining anonymity and confidentiality.

I am an experienced psychologist and I offer a range of services. These include evidence-based approaches for treating anxiety disorders, depression, and other diagnosable mental health issues; I also see many students who may not have a mental health problem, but who are experiencing difficulties/stresses which disrupt their functioning. Counselling may also be conducted in combination with psychotropic medications, prescribed by your physician. Students may also be referred to a physician or psychiatrist (in HCDS) if they are wishing to explore this possibility.

It is important to highlight that therapy is not exclusive to those with a mental health problem. If you are working to develop good habits and maintain healthy self-care strategies I’d be happy to see you to help with this process. As we all know, preventative measures are important to both overall physical and mental health. It is not necessary to wait on problems because they are not “big enough” or because “others need counselling more than me.” Dealing with smaller issues may assist in the prevention of more firmly-established and undesirable habits, plus anyone can benefit from counselling.

Some common examples of areas in which students may benefit from receiving further support include: procrastination, increasing motivation, perfectionism, establishing healthy boundaries, family issues, self compassion, dealing constructively with difficult feedback, disordered eating, grief, sexual identity, and relationship issues. Sessions are client-driven and one session may be all that is needed.

If you wish to schedule an appointment, contact Counselling Services at 613.533.6000 ext. 78264 or counselling.services@queensu.ca and request an appointment with Janet. Therapy is available free of charge. Hours of availability are M, W, F 10:00 am-3:30 pm & T, Th 11:00 am-7:00 pm. Lunch appointments are also available from 12:30-1:30. Additionally, sessions are also available virtually or via phone for those who are unable to attend sessions in person. One initial face to face session is often preferable prior to scheduling these alternatives. For those who may prefer a self-help approach, the following self-help workbooks are free and accessible online: http://www.queensu.ca/hcds/workbook.php.

Good2Talk is another resource that is available 24/7/365 at 1.866.925.5454 or good2talk.ca. It is a toll free number funded through the provincial government that offers free, professional, and confidential support.

Ball S, Bax A. Self-care in Medical Education: Effectiveness of Health-habits Interventions for First-year Medical Students. Acad Med 2002; 77: 911-7.

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