Most likely this is all a stressed medical student needs. If you pull this one off, you’re very likely one of our very best friends. A crucial part of this is allowing for silence. Don’t feel the need to interject at every pause. In fact, we’re probably not done talking yet. Silence makes us feel like you’re listening whereas a rapid response makes us feel like you really just couldn’t wait to get out what you wanted to say.
Be careful with “you’ll be fine”
This isn’t acknowledging why we’re upset, or even allowing us to be upset. It’s often another way of saying “suck it up” which literally has never helped anyone in the history of anything. And, there’s always a chance that we won’t be fine. Instead say, “we’re going to get through this.” It makes us feel like we’re part of a team rather than a lone ranger and reassures that you’ll be there always if we ever need you. Stress is inevitable, it’s okay to feel sad, but the thing that no one should ever feel is alone.
Acknowledge our struggle
Something like “It must be hard as balls” or “that sucks” will do perfectly. Sometimes, we just want to know that we’re not crazy for feeling the way we do. The moment I felt comfortable at med school was when I asked some of my classmates, “Do any of you all ever feel like there’s no possible way you can do this?” They all laughed at me and sarcastically said “No, Grayson, we’ve got it totally under control.” I learned that everyone was freaking out. Just to know I wasn’t alone and that being stressed is okay, I felt infinitely better.
Do not make assumptions
This holds true for everything. Do not assume that we can’t handle it. We’ve done it before and most likely we’ll be able to do it again. Do not assume the details of the problem. Instead, ask us about the situation, try to understand it. We’ll probably end up saying something like “I know I’ll be fine, I’m just having a rough time right now,” and bingo-if you get that response, you’ve just helped us far more than you can ever imagine.
Don’t tell us your solution to our problems
Seriously, it’s incredibly condescending to tell someone how to fix their lives. Like walking up to a smoker and in passing simply saying “If you quit, you’ll live a longer, healthier life. Good luck!” Understand that we may not be looking for a solution but just want someone to listen. Also, grant us the decency of understanding that we almost always know the solution to our problems. And even if we don’t, walk us through our own solution. Having us come to it will be so much more meaningful than being lectured. Say something like, “Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you?” Most likely we just need someone to listen.
Do not remind us of all the problems if we fail
You’d be surprised at how often this one comes up. If a medical student says in conversation that they’re having a tough time, do not, I repeat, DO NOT mention student loans or debt. They know about this-to remind them is strikingly similar to pointing and laughing. Also, see “Do not make assumptions” above; lack of inspiration is only one of the stressors of med school.
Don’t tell us you understand what it’s like
Even if you’re a current doc who has been through it, every person’s situation is different. There’s a huge probability that you don’t understand. And even if you did, you couldn’t possibly understand how we are handling it. Instead, allow the emotions to be personal and simply acknowledge that you’re listening.
Be there for us
Tell us you support us, that you’re always there if we ever need anything. We mostly just need someone to listen, to make us feel like we’re not going crazy. Frankly it should be an easy job to listen, and we’re happy to return the favor. Often it helps to hear other people’s problems. It grounds us and helps us realize that we’re not alone. We’re often very emotionally guarded and it can get pretty lonely to think we’re the only ones having a hard time. So take care of all your friends, not just the moody stressed medical student, be there for them, and most importantly, listen.