To the Editor:
For the past several years, I have co-organized storytelling workshops for my medical student peers with the Stanford Medicine & the Muse program. They occur twice a year, and approximately 40 students attend each one. Throughout the workshops, students—in community—share their stories. And not just any story. A personal story, the kind that feels nerve-wracking to say in front of a group.
Our last workshop filled in just over an hour. What makes students so eager to participate? My hunch, based on both personal experience and the data I have collected from my peers, is that students are drawn to our workshops because they allow for the sort of raw sharing that bonds people together through common humanity.
Medical school affords many chances for students to shine. But what about opportunities to share those moments of self-doubt, insecurity, or failure that we usually keep hidden?
One group of researchers has defined trust as “a psychological state comprising the intention to accept vulnerability based upon positive expectations of the intentions or behavior of another.”1 The storytelling workshops—which constitute a safe space for medical students to share vulnerably and to be accepted in our vulnerability—allow us to build community by first building trust in one another.
I am a champion of these workshops because of my daily interactions with my peers. Despite each class consisting of only 90 students and all of us attending the same lectures, I was astounded by how little we actually knew about the person sitting next to us.
Small talk fills the short breaks between lectures. And our hectic schedules combined with feeling shy, or even intimidated by our accomplished peers, leave the class fragmented into cliques—and a non-negligible number of us are lost as loners.
Feelings of loneliness exacerbate mental illnesses such as depression, which now affects more than 25% of U.S. medical students.2 Notably, over 10% of medical students have considered suicide.2 Clearly, something needs to change. Many programs across the United States sponsor wellness initiatives (e.g., yoga classes, meditation breaks, even massages by professional therapists).
Although these interventions are impressive, medical schools should remember the simple yet influential power of storytelling. Being a medical student is an emotional rollercoaster. In the span of four years, we experience the joy of saving someone’s life but also the tragedy of seeing someone die. Few professions tap into the human core the way that medicine does.
Medical students need a zero-judgment zone where we do not have to prove anything or impress anyone. We need a space where we can just be ourselves with each other, where we can reveal our flaws and be stronger for it.
Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thank fellow medical student collaborators Ruth Marks and Pablo Romano and the Stanford Medicine & the Muse leaders; Laurel Braitman, PhD, writer-in-residence, Medicine & the Muse, Center for Biomedical Ethics, and adjunct professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine, Stanford School of Medicine; and Audrey Shafer, MD, director, Medicine & the Muse, Center for Biomedical Ethics, and professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine, Stanford School of Medicine and Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System, for their instrumental support in organizing the storytelling workshops.
Candice Kim, MS
MD/PhD student, Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Graduate School of Education, Stanford, California; [email protected].
1. Rousseau DM, Sitkin SB, Burt RS, Camerer C. Not so different after all: A cross-discipline view of trust. Acad Manag Rev. 1998;23:393404.
2. Rotenstein LS, Ramos MA, Torre M, et al. Prevalence of depression, depressive symptoms, and suicidal ideation among medical students: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA. 2016;316:22142236.