Kyra Kaczmarczik, a third-year medical student, decided to apply to medical school to pursue her dream of becoming an abortion provider and working for Planned Parenthood. Currently, her plan is to apply for Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women's Health residency and fulfill that dream.

mental health month

Kaczmarczik discusses what has helped her manage her mental health during her studies and how she has approached it.

How have you managed your mental health during your studies in medical school years?

Kaczmarczik: It's been a long and interesting journey. Initially, I struggled to manage my mental health during my studies. I was originally supposed to graduate in the class of 2023, but I took a six-month break, and now I’m in the class of 2024. I realized that pushing myself relentlessly would only lead to burnout. So, I decided to prioritize my well-being and take a step back. This break had a significant impact on my perspective. I used to be solely focused on achievement and pushing myself to the limit. Now, I realize that approach is unsustainable and detrimental. I learned to put myself first and adopt a more balanced approach. 

The constant evaluations and tests in medical school can be overwhelming. I shifted my perspective and realized that failure or scoring low on something isn't the end of the world. I embraced the idea of retaking exams or accepting lower scores. It's not about being blindly optimistic but rather about not giving up and facing challenges head-on. This change in perspective was crucial for me.

How are you managing your mental health during transitional periods?

Kaczmarczik: Currently, I'm in a study period for the Step 2: Clinical Knowledge Exam (CK), which is a stressful time for me. To manage the stress, I make sure to have social interactions throughout the day to avoid isolation, even if it's just a short phone call. 

Additionally, I find joy in small things to uplift my mood. For instance, I have a special candle that I only light when I'm studying, creating a ritual and a little treat for myself. I also engage in knitting during study breaks, allowing my analytical mind to rest while enjoying a mechanical activity. These simple practices make a significant difference in managing stress during this period.

What would you recommend we do on a daily basis to prevent stress and burden? 

Kaczmarczik: These are the key things that have helped me during my medical education, particularly the challenging early years of book learning. Patient care is what I love about medicine, so transitioning to the clinical years was a relief. I think there are probably other students like me as well who found those book learning years quite difficult. 

Looking back, I would emphasize the importance of having a therapist. Even if you're doing well and have no history of mental health concerns, it’s helpful to be prepared for any future crises. Additionally, if you are doing well, your therapist can assist in areas like professional development. I know personally I can tend to downplay my own well-being and busy myself with the demands of the schedule. A therapist can help detect changes in mood and provide valuable insight. While there is still stigma surrounding therapy, I believe everyone can benefit from it. 

I also try to prioritize movement. Moving in ways that bring joy and incorporating it into my daily routine is essential. It doesn't have to be about burning calories or conforming to beauty standards. Taking short bike rides or long walks can contribute to good health. 

Most importantly, you need to be kind to yourself. Implementing self-care habits takes time, and it's important to give yourself that space without guilt or self-criticism. Remember that the goal is to feel happier and more fulfilled, not to add more pressure or negative emotions.

What tips do you have for medical students on how they should handle their mental health if they’re feeling overwhelmed right now?

Kaczmarczik: When it comes to testing, it's crucial to maintain perspective. The amount of testing in medical school can be overwhelming. Remember that if you fail a test, you can retake it, and if you score low, it doesn't mean it's impossible to achieve your goals. At the end of the day, as a physician, what's important is that you understand and can apply the knowledge. Testing is just a crude way to see if you have that mastery. In addition, when feeling overwhelmed, it's important to talk to someone about it. Despite the pressure to push through and achieve in medicine, it's essential to voice when you're spread too thin and need assistance. I hope that asking for help continues to be destigmatized in medicine.