What to Do and Say When Your Loved One is Struggling in Medical School

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Adapted from a blog post written by Kristin Rose Henrich published January 2021.

    Medical school can be an enormously stressful time for students and families alike. Watching your loved one struggle in medical school is sad, scary, and frustrating. You want to help, but aren’t sure how. If you’re wondering what you can do for that struggling student, in this post we’ll share some tips that’ll make the path forward a little easier!

    To place our advice on how to help in the proper context, let’s begin by reviewing what makes medical school so difficult, so you can gain a bit of insight into what your loved one is going through. 

    Here are some reasons a student you love may be struggling.

    3 Reasons Medical School is So Difficult 

    1. Nothing prepares you for medical school. 

    Anyone can end up having a difficult time in medical school. Even students who historically have been star pupils, found school easy in the past, or scored well on the MCAT can struggle in med school. 

    It’s important to understand that just because a student is struggling, that doesn’t mean they’re not hardworking, intelligent, and passionate enough. Learning in medical school is unlike anywhere else. The volume of information is enormous, and students are expected to move through their curricula at lightning speed.

    2. It’s easy to feel isolated and alone. 

    Due to the consistently busy schedule and fast pace of medical school, many students’ social circles become much smaller and the environment they’re submerged in is highly competitive. This can leave many students feeling alone and isolated. 

    3. Not all medical schools provide adequate support for their students. 

    While some schools have excellent resources and are invested in the well-being of their students, that’s not always the case. 

    Students can often feel like they’re going under without a lifeguard in sight. They may be trying their best, but they don’t have the proper guidance, study skills, or support they need to be successful.

    6 Ways to Help Your Med Student

    Now that we’ve provided a bit of insight as to why your student may be struggling, let’s discuss how you can help. Here are six things you can do: 

    1. Help your student keep things in perspective. 

    It’s easy to start mentally spiraling under the amount of stress med students often feel. Help them understand what matters, and what doesn’t. 

    Are there some things that can be put on the back burner? What needs to be prioritized? Medical school is a marathon that’s run one mile at a time. Encourage your student to focus on a mile at a time. Help them figure out what their most urgent priorities are and what they can and can’t control.

    2. Encourage your student to practice positive self-care. 

    This includes good sleep, regular hygiene, eating healthy, keeping a clean space, and taking breaks when needed. This stuff sounds simple, but it’s super significant! You’d assume that medical students would understand the importance of mental health as it is a science, but too often medical professionals struggle with the very self-care practices they endorse!

    3. Help with household tasks.

    Again, it’s not a given you’ll be able to help with these things! But if you can, offer to do chores like grocery shopping, cooking, or laundry. These tasks can feel impossible to squeeze in when you’re under the pressure of medical school. If you can take one of these tasks off your student’s plate, that’s awesome!

    4. Encourage positive behavior and be honest if you’re picking up on negative behavior.

    If your student is doing something you know is unhealthy like negative self-talk, only eating one meal a day, or forgoing sleep in the name of more studying, say something. 

    It might be easier to be agreeable, but your student needs their loved ones to bring out the best in them. Just be sure to provide feedback in a way that feels supportive rather than judgmental.

    5. Show understanding and avoid placing guilt on your student.

    Medical students are busy around the clock for many years. It’s likely your student will need to miss a family gathering at some point, forget a birthday, or not be as present as you wish they could be. Try to remember that while this road is long, it won’t last forever.

    6. Consult a professional when it feels like your support isn’t enough.

    Whether it’s contacting a professional tutor for academic guidance or helping your med student find access to mental health professionals, there are plenty of resources out there to further support your loved one. Med school often takes a village!

    3 Helpful Things to Say to an Overwhelmed Med Student

    They say actions speak louder than words, but what you say matters too! Finding the right words isn’t always easy, so here are some things you can say to a medical student that’s struggling: 

    1. You’re not alone. 

    Many students feel the same way you do. Sadly, the competitive nature of medical school can often keep students from sharing their struggles with others, but tell them they’re not the only one who feels like this. They’re normal.

    2. You made it this far!

    Gaining admission to medical school is a feat in itself! Tell them they were one of a myriad of students who wanted their spot in the program. They felt the call, their school saw potential in them, and now they’re doing it. Tell them to keep moving forward!

    3. Medical school can feel like a cold and isolating place but remember, this is not your entire universe!

    Tell them they have friends and family who love them and are so proud of the work they’re doing! They’ll be busy for quite some time but eventually the schedule will slow down and then it will be time to party! 

    Encourage them to hang on. Let them know the time will come to celebrate their success!

    Further Reading

    Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do or say when your loved one is struggling in medical school. If you can lend a hand in any of the seven ways we listed, that can make their lives easier. Every little bit helps! And if you’re only able to lend a kind word, sometimes that matters more than anything else.

    If you feel like you need more support, please be sure to reach out. We’re here to help you and your medical student get through this!

    For more (free!) resources to support med students’ mental health, check out these other posts on the Med School blog: