Med Student Syndrome

You’ve heard of the typical hypochondriac. This is someone who frequents their doctor because they are convinced their headaches are actually symptoms of a malignant brain tumour. This is a person who has become so obsessed with their health that it has become unhealthy, a sort of catch-22.

Most hypochondriacs aren’t extreme. They suffer from small, imagined disorders and illnesses and some don’t even bother seeking medical advice. One such group consists of high school and university students who absorb information about illnesses from television shows, magazine ads, as well as psychology and medical textbooks.

Dr. James Hicks, who is Director of Health Services at Laurier, agrees that people are “inundated with information” about diseases like heart disease and cancer. “There is so much publicity about diseases,” says Dr. Hicks “that once you hear about [them], they are hard to ignore.”

Television could definitely be to blame for a large number of the hypochondriacs out there, from the minor to the major cases. Illnesses featured on commercials put out by the Canadian Cancer Society or the Heart and Lung Association make up what Dr. Hicks calls “the publicized diseases.” These ads are aired for charitable or awareness purposes and usually feature emotional testimonies like the one about the perfectly healthy father of three who suddenly collapses while shoveling snow or playing in the park with his family.

In students, a disorder called ‘medical student syndrome’ has been acknowledged. It is described as “a minor form of literary self-imposed hypochondria,” and has been observed in med students as well as psychology students. Essentially, it is the effect of reading about a disorder in a textbook, and imagining the diagnosis applies to oneself.

A text such as the DSM, which is used to identify and diagnose mental disorders—and which is a controversial method of doing so in the first place—contains lists of symptoms for each disorder. Since many mental disorders are very difficult to place amidst the whole range of maladies in the book, many symptoms are listed and many overlap. Also, a patient may only need to exhibit a percentage of these symptoms to be diagnosed.

As a result, young psych students have been known to imagine themselves into a disorder, to some extent an easier thing to do than imagine a more physical disorder, rather than a purely mental or physiological one.

A first-year psych student at Laurier, who wishes to remain anonymous, was asked if she thought there were correlations between ads, texts and symptoms. She agreed. One concern of hers is depression. After thinking she might be suffering from it for some time, she decided to look at the section on depression and bi-polar disorder in her psychology textbook. Her worries increased when she found that a lot of the symptoms for depression were an almost perfect match to what she was feeling.

When asked if she had convinced herself that she had the disorder, she replied “I actually do think I have it.”

Hypochondria could be seen as nothing more than a ‘learned’ disorder. After hearing about a disease many times, the individual learns that they actually have it, even though they do not. It is up to people to think rationally and critically, dismissing what obviously doesn’t apply to them. Dr. Hicks used the example of a 22 year-old worried about bowel cancer.

Getting your bearings in the confusing world of diseases and disorders can be tough but if you can learn to ignore the stream of messages, you might realize that your health is all you have.