By Sioned Kirkpatrick, MS, OMS-III, University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine, Immediate Past National 2nd Vice Chair, AACOM Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents
For the last three years, I have had the great opportunity of serving on the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM)’s Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents (COSGP)’s national wellness committee, which in my final year on the council this past year, I chaired. I have spent countless hours working on programming for my general council and for medical schools across the nation that aims to increase the frequency of mental health and wellness conversations while simultaneously decreasing the inherent stigma associated with these topics. I have presented many times to members of COSGP, AACOM, and the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation on the importance of these conversations. Yet, to this day, I find myself hesitating and having to work hard internally to speak about my own personal mental health and wellbeing.
Talking about this topic is difficult because it takes vulnerability, and being vulnerable is wildly uncomfortable. Nobody really enjoys the vulnerability required to talk about mental health, but everyone can benefit from starting this conversation, which is exactly why wellness advocacy is so important.
I can remember vividly the first time that I chose to be an advocate for my patients and my peers on the national level. It was at the 2018 AOA House of Delegates, and I was speaking in front of hundreds of physicians in support of a resolution that would help address sexual assault and harassment. I was an absolute mess to say the least. I remember standing right in the center of the room in front of the Speaker of the House under what felt like a 1,000-degree-Fahrenheit spotlight. I was sweating profusely, and every last inch of my body was shaking, from my larynx to my toes. To be honest, I kind of blacked out and can’t really remember exactly what I said, but I know for a fact that it felt messy and hot and like I possibly could have been having SVT (supraventricular tachycardia, or an abnormally fast heartbeat) the entire time.
What I do remember, though, is the response from others that my advocacy inspired. So many people thanked me for standing up and speaking my truth, for speaking their truth when they couldn’t, for being brave. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this experience became the foundation for what molded my understanding and definition of what being an advocate means to me.
Being an advocate means being vulnerable, which is synonymous with being brave. It means getting hot and sweaty and shaky and uncomfortable. It means leveraging your connections and situations to speak up for and on behalf of those who cannot.
In medicine and in health care, for some reason a stigma exists against speaking about your mental health and wellbeing. We are called upon to serve and to heal others, oftentimes at the cost of healing ourselves. We have this twisted perception that in order to be a good physician or health care provider, we must constantly be strong, and vulnerability would compromise that. But this is wrong. Being vulnerable takes strength and bravery, and being an advocate takes vulnerability.
Now more than ever, we need fierce advocates for wellness. With COVID-19 overworking our health care providers and isolating our medical students, we need people who are brave and capable of speaking up and asking for necessary resources and spaces to talk about and confront our struggles without fear of retribution or failure. Now more than ever, we need each other.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by AACOM.