What would you do if you were asked to share your mental health experiences with medical students? A lot will depend on your specific issues and the stage of recovery you are at. I was asked twice, once in 2010 and once in 2012 - and I agreed both times.
In 2010 it was my own GP who, following a telephone consultation, brought up the idea of talking to medical students about my mental health. He was involved with overseeing the training of the students and felt that having a few come out to the house to talk to me would prove beneficial for them in their training. He stressed that I didn't have to agree, and given my first reaction was panic - the social anxiety aspect of the agoraphobia was pretty strong at that point - I said I'd think about it but to expect me to say no.
However the more I considered it, and the more I remembered how I was let down by the medical profession all through my childhood, I came to this thought: what if something I share with these students will help them help another child or adult presenting like I did? What if me talking to these students encouraged more interest from them in mental health? The idea that my voice could make this difference persuaded me to face my fears, so the next time I spoke with my GP, I agreed to see the students.
Several weeks later, I was pacing up and down my living room, peering out the window and feeling like an anxious wreck waiting for the first two students to arrive. I strongly doubted my ability to follow through with the meeting but held onto the reason I was doing this. I hadn't agreed to it lightly, so it was worth investing all my mental strength to see through my anxiety and fulfil my aim. I had already typed up a detailed but simple overview of all my problems, with a basic history of each, plus a list of physical symptoms and how the conditions affect each other (i.e. how one condition being triggered can trigger another), but I still needed to see the students face to face to find out where the gaps in that information were. There's also something very powerful about meeting someone in person and discussing something like this; it brings home to both parties just what you've been through and how far you've come, how well you have done to survive as much as you have.
That first meeting went very well. The two students were fantastic, genuinely interested and with plenty of questions for me; we chatted for around an hour, and they agreed that my reason for talking to them - to prevent another child going through what I did - was important. I had previously only talked candidly about all aspects of my mental health with my counsellor, so opening up to these strangers was tough, but I answered them as well as I could; as well as anyone in that situation can. After the meeting my GP phoned and said they had enjoyed talking with me and that they felt it had been very beneficial to them. That was enough for me to go into the second meeting with two new students a few days later with slightly less shaky legs, and an even stronger conviction that I was doing the right thing for me.
In 2012 it was my practice manager who phoned, asking if I would mind talking to another few students. I agreed and saw another two sets of two students at home. The anxiety that accompanied the meetings this time was miles away from my experience two years earlier; although still nervous, I was near enough a different person as I was at a much later stage of recovery, and I already knew that the reason I was doing this was entirely valid and worthwhile.
If I were to be asked to talk to several students again, I wouldn't hesitate to do so. I trust that the students I come into contact with have been briefed on the basics of my conditions and that they have a genuine interest in learning more about mental health, and come into the meetings with something of an open mind and non-judgemental attitude. I'd even be happy to talk to a slightly bigger group of students if the opportunity arose.
Getting involved with the training of new medical professionals is a way of helping to secure your future care as well as helping the many millions of fellow sufferers of mental health disorders. If you're asked by your GP or practice to consider sharing your story with medical students, please do think carefully about it and remember that if you feel able to agree, you are helping them help us.
Also keep an eye on mental health charity websites (e.g. Anxiety UK, Mind) for researchers carrying out studies or research into mental health conditions; medical students, graduates and professionals often place requests for people in certain situations to help them with their understanding and further learnings in the field. Sometimes it's as simple as filling in an online questionnaire, some studies involve more; each one is different but it's made clear at the start what is needed of you.
I encourage anyone thinking of adding their experiences to go ahead and get involved if possible. It's our voices that will make the difference in improving the understanding and quality of mental health care and treatment in the future, for us and for future generations.