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Building Stronger and Healthier Relationships While in Medical School

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“There are two skills that would benefit students as they navigate these issues: learning how to communicate about relationships, and identifying their own needs/knowing how to get support.”

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The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

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Jessica ChenFeng, PhD, LMFT, is the associate director of physician vitality and an associate professor of medical education at Loma Linda University Health. She had a private practice as a family therapist for many years, is a former MFT professor and supervisor, and is a published author on sociocultural issues such as gender, ethnicity, and spirituality.

In my role as associate director of physician vitality at our institution, I get a glimpse into the relational lives of our medical students and physicians. I am also a licensed marriage and family therapist (MFT), former professor of MFT, and had a private practice for the last several years. A large part of what I do now is meet with medical students and physicians to support them toward success and wellbeing.

Being in medical school is a potentially stressful situation with many hours of each day devoted to studying as well as wondering about and anticipating the next step. It is often also a developmental stage in life when students are figuring out who they have been and want to be and navigating expectations from themselves and others. It may be difficult to know how to negotiate connection with family, friends, and partners. Medical school can also be a season of experiencing tremendous interpersonal growth, if students are willing to be open to their own development, self-awareness, and the hard work and courage required.

There are a few themes that seem to come up in the relational lives of medical students: feeling pressure from family/loved ones about the (lack of) time spent together or change in connection; emotionally harmful relationships; and isolation and burnout. There are two skills that would benefit students as they navigate these issues: learning how to communicate about relationships and identifying their own needs/knowing how to get support.

Learning how to communicate about relationships

Being in medical school is an experience where only others who have gone through it can imagine what it is like. Sometimes family members and significant others do not understand the types of sacrifices required of students and the guilt and pressure students feel to maintain their relationships as is expected of them. Most medical students are at an age where they are also learning to differentiate from their families and so it may be difficult to know how to vocalize their needs and affirm the wishes of those they love.

It is helpful to practice communication skills and talk with loved ones about expectations for connection. For example, “I know we’ve been able to spend all our weekends together. I hope you know that I would love to be able to do this. I’m realizing that being a medical student will require me to study most of the week and even on weekends sometimes. I want to spend meaningful time together and also be able to feel ready for my exams. Could we plan out our schedule to make sure this happens?” Clarifying expectations and setting boundaries is a helpful skill to develop for relationship health.

Identifying personal needs/knowing how to get support

Those who enter helping and service-oriented fields are typically the ones that others go to for support. This makes it particularly difficult to identify when they themselves have needs and how to reach out for support and connection. It is important for the long-term wellbeing and resilience of medical students to know how to identify how they’re feeling and to establish a support system - personal (family, friends, partners) or professional (faculty, therapists, mentors). It is also helpful to work on the internalized not-so-healthy messages often associated with asking for help and experiencing “failure.”

If students are not yet familiar with the resources available to them at their schools - counseling, mentorship, wellness programs, local therapists — it is an optimal time to do so and experience the joy and energy from thriving relationships.

Jessica ChenFeng, PhD, LMFT
Associate Director of Physician Vitality
Associate Professor of Medical Education
Loma Linda University School of Medicine

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