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Medical School Student Support: A Guide Based on the Experiences of Three Students

By Srishti Agarwal, Director; Davina Puri, Fourth Year Peer Navigator; and edited by Xara Zahibi Dutton • 17 Jul 2020 • 0 comments

Medical students have two main options in seeking student support. These are UCL psychological support services​ and ​medical student support​. You may know about these options in theory, but wonder about the reality of seeking support. We wanted to demystify this experience, starting with medical student support. I interviewed three pre-clinical medical students, Maria, Radhi and Lucy*, on their experiences of using medical student support. We talked about why they decided to seek support, their initial sessions, and whether they felt that using student support was useful for them.

*All names have been changed for anonymity

First things first: Why might I use medical student support?

TL;DR: You can use them for any reason, especially if you are going through difficult times. FYI it’s not psychological therapy.

The ​MBBS website says​: “Our aim is to support students through any difficult times, and we are keen to encourage students to seek help early and come to us when [they] need to.” This could be for financial, academic, pastoral, and other reasons. From pastoral emails to lecture advice, students are encouraged to let the medical school know if they are facing stressful circumstances. This is emphasized particularly if a student is likely to need extenuating circumstances adjustments in the future.

Maria and Radhi sought ‘help early on’ and self-referred to student support. Radhi had experienced her first panic attack in the build-up to first year exams and wanted support that could be accessed straight away. Maria, however, had been experiencing insomnia that led to difficulties with her attendance and had seen little improvement with medication.

There is the possibility that you will have a compulsory meeting with medical student support, as Lucy did after failing her first formative exams.

Who am I likely to see in an appointment?

TL;DR: You’re likely to see one of 8 clinicians, and it’s potentially your choice who you see (#chooseandbook)

Medical student support is made up of eight clinicians, who spend a portion of their schedule as student support tutors. They are practicing neurologists, radiologists and neonatologists to name a few. You can read their (#grindneverstops) bios here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/medical-school/current-mbbs-students/student-support/how-we-can-help-you/who-we-are​.

The pastoral team appoints student support tutors based on a range of qualities that suggest they are suitable for the role, including their experiences, enthusiasm and personal qualities. They are given both internal and external training opportunities to ensure that they are well equipped to support students. Some support tutors have had specific mental health training, and one has clinical experience in treating patients struggling with their mental health.

Though support tutors do not provide therapy themselves, they do have experience in signposting students to where they can get the best help. If personal or health issues are discussed within sessions, support tutors will normally provide advice on where to seek further support. ​They also might offer practical advice and​ techniques for things like personal organisation(!).

Tutor and consultant obstetrician Dr Paul writes: ‘I have been a student support tutor at UCL Medical School for almost 3 years. As the mother of two teenagers I have some understanding of the pressures and demands facing students and young adults in London. I hope to be able to help students who need support, guidance or even just an opportunity to vent.’

If you do sign up, unless you request a specific tutor, you are likely to see the first available tutor.

A note from a peer navigator’s experience: “If you don’t get on with a tutor, and still need support, it’s worth trying again and asking for a different tutor. I felt that my first tutor was disengaged in our meeting, but the second tutor I saw engaged empathically and logistically with my issues, and I felt seen.”

If you are unhappy with a support appointment interaction, then you are advised to first mention it to the support tutor concerned. If this is not possible, or if you feel unable to raise an issue with your tutor, you should ask the support office to make an appointment with an alternative tutor, or contact Dr Will Coppola (head of the support service). If however you do not feel comfortable contacting Dr Coppola, then you also have the option of speaking to an alternative independent person through the support office (admin team). Feel free to contact Medics4Medics if you would like support in this.

How do I make an appointment and when will I be seen?

Ordinarily, you would be able to drop in to make an appointment on any week day at: G46, Medical School Building, or email the office. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this face to face service is not currently running, so students should email the office at: ​medsch.student-support@ucl.ac.uk

Some important things to note (which apply more when campus is open) (​copied from the student support website)

“Student Support Clinics are held on every week day throughout the year.

Emergencies: If you need an emergency appointment let us know and we will try to see you the same day – just add ‘emergency’ to your email subject heading.

Compulsory Student Support appointments take precedence over all teaching.”

One peer navigator dropped in (well, they walked into G46 hyperventilating), and was given an appointment later on in the day. Another time they were given an appointment later on in the week.​ It’s not a drop-in service​, but from what we’ve observed, they’re pretty fast.

What about confidentiality and fitness to practice?

All three students we spoke to were worried about this.

Radhi, Lucy and Maria all discussed their anxieties surrounding attending support meetings. Each student voiced significant worries about being “judged at surface value” and the common misconception that advisors will break confidentiality if students have mental health conditions. Please note, advisors will ONLY break confidentiality if you are at risk of harming yourself or others, in which case it becomes a Fitness to Practice (FtP) issue.

This autonomy of confidentiality extends to your notes from the appointments, except if it is a FtP issue. The medical school says: “Fitness to Practice normally only arises if a student has not been managing their mental health condition appropriately e.g. with medication, additional support and are putting themselves or others at risk in this way.” (See also: GMC guidance on ​Supporting medical students with mental health conditions​)

What are the sessions like?

TL;DR: varied! + usually timetabled for 20 minutes

We can’t say what it’s going to be like for you. However, we can let you know how Maria, Radhi and Lucy found their sessions:

After their initial session, Maria and Lucy both stated that they felt significantly worse than they did before. This was a result of feeling as if their issues were not addressed and the meetings felt rushed. All support meetings are timetabled for 20 minutes, but can be longer if necessary.

Lucy stated that it became ‘pretty obvious’ that ‘student support aims to strictly improve student grades and not treat their mental health.’ She felt ‘forced to talk about her issues’ which was emotionally taxing, and was frustrated at not receiving any proper help once she opened up.

After contacting student support in order to ask more about this issue, they told us that they have no interest in improving students' grades as a target, but only wish to help their students succeed.

Radhi stated that she actually had a ‘good overall experience’ and was given ‘sage advice without being patronising’. She attributed the fact that her student support advisor was ‘very experienced in talking through most issues that students [brought her way]’ as a key reason why she had a positive experience. Overall, Radhi felt that student support had indeed helped, but ultimately the responsibility did lie with her.

Maria stated that although student support did not directly help her, it prompted her to consider help from other services​ i​nstead.

What happens after?

At the end of the meeting, you should have an idea about whether you want to see the tutor again, or will leave it ad hoc. A few days later you’ll get an email with an attachment of notes from the meeting. Words from the medical school: “These notes will be retained on your student record and shared with MBBS academic leads and professional services staff on a need-to-know basis.” You also have to consent for them to be shared in the majority of cases.

Final Remarks

One of the main insights we have gained from the interviews is that there may be an expectation disjunction in student support. All three interviewees had concerns about confidentiality, and we hope these concerns are now addressed for you. Maria and Lucy felt rushed and worse after their appointments. So it is worth re-emphasising that whilst student support has strong assets, for example in promptness and as an important way to communicate with the medical school about difficulties that you are facing, it may not always be the best resource for supporting you with whatever you are going through. It may be sensible to see it as one of a few vital steps (including​ ​utilising ​other services​) that you may have to take in gaining appropriate support for your mental health.

However, it ​is​ important to let the support service know if you are struggling. Dr Coppola emphasises: “Even if students do not want to have regular support from us, it is vital that students inform us, as this is part of your student agreement, and professional responsibility.”

We hope that this piece has helped further your understanding of the role and process of applying to medical student support. We’re going to be covering more support services soon. We would like to stress that the experiences of these three students are singular experiences. There is no single (or triple) experience that can be used as a norm for UCL medical student support. Further shared experiences are definitely needed to contribute to a clearer picture of student support available. So, please share your experiences if you’ve accessed (or tried to access) student support before, and we will carry on representing your experiences through this blog!

Comment below, and if you want to write a piece on your experiences, email us at uclm4m@gmail.com​ or contact Srishti ​srishti.agarwal.18@ucl.ac.uk​ or Niraj niraj.kumar.18@ucl.ac.uk

Thank you to the students who shared their experiences, and to Dr Coppola and the Medicine Student support team for their assistance in researching this post.

We would recommend visiting the medical school student support website for further guidance on their services: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/medical-school/current-mbbs-students/mbbs-student-support, as well as emailing the office ​medsch.student-support@ucl.ac.uk​ for any questions.

If you would like to talk to a peer navigator about accessing services, or have someone to go to student support with you, you can contact us here: https://www.uclm4m.co.uk/contact

Much love, take care

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