Finding Mental Resiliency As a Premed and Beyond

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PMY 545: Finding Mental Resiliency As a Premed and Beyond

Session 545

Join us today as Carlton Abner talks about how students can find the mental resiliency to cope with medical school. Carlton is the Associate Provost of Campus Health and Wellness at Kansas City University.

Carlton will be speaking at MappdCon 2023. If you haven’t gotten your ticket yet and you’re listening to this before October 6 – what are you waiting for? Get your ticket today!

For more podcast resources to help you with your medical school journey and beyond, check out Meded Media.

Listen to this podcast episode with the player above, or keep reading for the highlights and takeaway points.

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Carlton’s Passion for Service

Carlton’s passion for service has been a driving force throughout his career in the healthcare industry, particularly in nursing. With 15 years of experience as an ER nurse, he found fulfillment in helping others during their most vulnerable moments. However, his dedication to service didn’t stop at the bedside.

Exploring Leadership Roles in Healthcare

As Carlton’s career progressed, he sought opportunities to expand his impact beyond direct patient care. He ventured into military service as an Army nurse, gaining valuable experience and a broader perspective on healthcare. This led him to explore leadership and operational roles in various healthcare fields, honing his skills in change management, program and project management, and leadership development.

When the opportunity arose to join Kansas City University as the Associate Provost of Campus Health and Wellness, Carlton saw it as the perfect culmination of his diverse expertise. He recognized the significance of this role, as it was the first time the university had hired someone specifically for this position.

'My job is helping people be the best version of themselves, whether that's helping them achieve their academic goals or their professional goals.'Click To Tweet

A Catalyst for Change in Campus Wellness Through Experience and Empathy

Carlton’s unique blend of experience positioned him as the ideal candidate. He understands that true change in wellness initiatives begins with winning hearts and minds.

With unwavering enthusiasm, Carlton embraced the challenge of implementing a comprehensive wellness program at Kent State University. His three decades of healthcare experience have provided him with a toolbox of skills and knowledge, enabling him to navigate the complexities of creating positive change within the campus community.

The Importance of Destigmatizing Mental Health and Social Preparedness for Younger Generations

The Power of Destigmatization

Carlton commends the younger generations for their efforts in destigmatizing the need for help. He specifically recognizes the positive impact on groups like males, people of color, and individuals who may traditionally be hesitant to seek assistance. As a result of this destigmatization, Carlton observes an increase in the number of people reaching out for counseling services or seeking behavioral therapists.

The Challenge for Younger Generations

However, Carlton points out that there is a lack of social preparation, particularly among Gen Z and Gen Alpha. This issue is particularly significant for high achievers who have dedicated their lives to pursuing prestigious careers, such as becoming physicians.

'You're at the pinnacle of what you have to give up in order to be a physician. And what that means is, you are already limited socially.'Click To Tweet

Carlton admires physicians as the “tip of the spear” in healthcare delivery. However, their commitment to their profession often limits their social interactions. Their focus on undergraduate and graduate studies, in addition to the demanding nature of their field, can hinder their social exposure.

The Impact of Technology

Moreover, Carlton highlights the broader trend of decreased social contact since 2008, coinciding with the rise of smartphones and social media. With technology playing an increasingly central role in our lives, face-to-face interactions have diminished, potentially impacting the overall well-being and social connections of younger generations.

The “Lack of Skinned Knees”: Navigating Social Connections in the Digital Age

Carlton reflects on the diminishing in-person social context and coins it as the “lack of skinned knees.” He reminisces about his upbringing in the 80s and 90s when bicycles served as a means to connect with friends and explore the neighborhood. Through these encounters, Carlton and his peers learned valuable lessons about social boundaries, and acceptable behavior, and developed resilience through face-to-face interactions.

However, Carlton acknowledges that the landscape has shifted dramatically with the rise of online interactions and technology. Younger generations, including his own children, now have most of their social interactions online, missing out on the physical experiences that fostered social maturation. Carlton candidly admits that his six-year-old has yet to learn how to ride a bike, highlighting the generational divide in terms of social development.

As an educator at a post-baccalaureate university, Carlton recognizes that even his older students may face social challenges. This is similar to those he encountered at a younger age. That being said, today’s students are proactive in seeking guidance and support to navigate this changing landscape. They are eager to redefine the relationship between faculty and students, signaling a desire for mentorship and assistance in bridging the social gaps they may experience.

Overcoming Stigma and Prioritizing Wellness in Medical Education

The Fear of Stigmatization: Addressing Concerns about Seeking Help in Medical School

Carlton acknowledges the valid fear among medical students that seeking help for mental health concerns could impact their academic success and professional future. He sheds light on the unique challenges faced by medical students, especially in states with strict licensure regulations that contribute to this fear.

The perceived notion that seeking treatment could undermine one’s qualification as a physician is seen as absurd. Carlton highlights the need to tackle the stigma associated with mental health in the medical field.

Prioritizing Wellness for Academic Success

Understanding the importance of overall well-being in academic achievement, Carlton encourages students to prioritize their mental health. He emphasizes that maintaining wellness directly correlates with performing well academically.

Carlton underscores the choice between mental wellness and professional ambitions, urging students to seek help when faced with such a dilemma.

Shifting Mindsets in Medical Education: A Proactive Approach to Supporting Student Mental Health

Addressing the need for a paradigm shift, Carlton advises faculty members to adopt a proactive approach to supporting student mental health. Instead of waiting for students to reach out, he calls for educators to actively reach in and provide necessary support. 

'We have to move away from this mentality of waiting for students to reach out... we have to find a way to reach in.'Click To Tweet

Carlton acknowledges that this transition may take time due to the slow nature of behavior and norm changes. However, he firmly believes that a proactive approach is essential for creating an environment where seeking help becomes the norm for medical students.

Encouraging Cultural Change: Breaking Barriers and Promoting a Supportive Environment

While progress has been made in breaking down apprehension surrounding seeking help, Carlton admits that critical mass has not yet been reached. He envisions a future where seeking support during the demanding journey of medical school is not only normalized but encouraged. 

“We're at the tipping point where we could say it is normal to reach out particularly why you're on this very arduous quarter-million dollar journey, where you have a lot at risk.”Click To Tweet

Carlton recognizes the significant risks involved in pursuing a career in medicine. He also emphasizes the need for a cultural shift within the medical community to prioritize mental health and support students on their challenging path.

Challenging Social Norms in the Workplace

Carlton expresses his admiration for the younger generations’ vocal stance on various work-related issues, including mental health. He applauds their refusal to accept the status quo and their determination to bring about change.

Carlton acknowledges the significance of social norms in shaping behavior. Once a new norm is established, it takes time for it to reach critical mass and become widely accepted.

Drawing from his experience in the military, Carlton highlights how apprehension around seeking help due to concerns about it being recorded on personal files is not limited to the medical field.

Similar fears can manifest in other industries where seeking support may be seen as a sign of weakness or a potential risk to one’s career.

Despite the progress made by vocal advocates, Carlton believes that society has yet to reach the inflection point where people are fully aware that seeking help is no longer stigmatized. He draws parallels to his observations within the military, where the transition towards a more accepting environment took time. It required a critical mass of individuals to embrace the new norm.

Building Mental Resilience: Understanding the Basics of Human Existence

The Four Aspects of Human Existence

Carlton acknowledges that while he may not have specific experience with the journey of a premed or medical student, he underscores the generalizability of human existence.

To navigate through life’s challenges, Carlton highlights the four fundamental aspects: circumstances or situations, thoughts, emotions, and behavior. He emphasizes the importance of recognizing how these elements are interconnected in shaping our responses.

Developing Self-Awareness and Understanding

To support premed students, Carlton suggests that a key aspect is developing a deep understanding of oneself. He recommends utilizing tools such as DISC assessments and StrengthsFinder to gain insights into personal strengths and qualities.

By knowing oneself better, individuals can align their thoughts and emotions with behaviors that are beneficial, rather than being driven by maladaptive thoughts and feelings. Carlton emphasizes the significance of investing time in self-reflection and introspection.

'The more you know about you, the more you can then be able to boil down your thoughts and feelings to a behavior that's going to be helpful versus having maladaptive thoughts and feelings.”Click To Tweet

Connecting with Others and Seeking Feedback

Carlton underscores the value of spending time with others and staying connected to social networks. He emphasizes the importance of seeking feedback, both verbal and nonverbal, from trusted individuals. By engaging with others, individuals can gain valuable perspectives and insights that help them assess their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

Carlton encourages students to establish meaningful connections and engage in open communication to continue their personal growth.

Reflecting and Adjusting

In building mental resilience, Carlton emphasizes the need for self-reflection and regular self-assessment. He advises individuals to constantly check their thoughts and emotions, validating their truthfulness and considering any necessary adjustments.

By questioning the accuracy of thoughts and feelings, individuals can make positive changes and cultivate a more resilient mindset.

Overcoming Setbacks: Building Resilience in College

Carlton emphasizes the importance of students who fail a class examining the factors that contributed to their failure. He highlights the significance of considering elements such as lack of support or preparation for college life that may have played a role in their academic setback.

To better prepare for tests and challenges, Carlton suggests the value of seeking out mentors who have succeeded in the same field. By learning from their experiences and strategies, students can acquire valuable insights and guidance to enhance their own preparation and approach.

Carlton reminds students that failing a test does not define them as failures. Rather, it signifies mistakes made in their studying approach. By reframing failure as an opportunity for growth and learning, students can develop resilience and bounce back stronger.

Cultivating Resilience and Comfort with Failure

Building resilience and being comfortable with failure are essential for personal growth and eventual success. Carlton emphasizes the importance of embracing the challenges and setbacks that come with pursuing meaningful goals. By adopting a flexible mindset and developing backup plans, students can navigate adversity more effectively.

“Get comfortable with failure. Get comfortable with Plan B, C, D and E. Go through the alphabet if you have to, but know who you are. Know how you're talking to yourself.”Click To Tweet

Nurturing a Positive Mindset

Carlton advises students to practice positive self-talk and engage in activities that bring them joy. By maintaining a positive mindset, individuals can better manage negative emotions and approach challenges with renewed determination and optimism.

Recognizing the influence of thoughts and emotions, Carlton highlights that changing one’s mindset can improve outcomes and lead to success. By cultivating more adaptive thoughts and managing emotions effectively, students can enhance their academic performance and overall well-being.

The Neurobiology of Wiring Firing: Reframing Thoughts for Personal Growth

Understanding the Power of Neuronal Connections

In examining the neurobiology of wiring and firing, Carlton sheds light on how our thoughts are shaped by the connections between neurons in our brains. He highlights that if we consistently engage in self-talk that follows a particular pattern, it is because those neuronal connections have been established and reinforced over time.

To break free from negative thought patterns, Carlton emphasizes the need for reframing. He explains that unless we actively work on rewiring our brains by creating new connections, it can be challenging to escape the cycle of negativity and pessimism that we are accustomed to.

Carlton shares his personal experience of facing a test and realizing that he had fallen back into talking to himself in the same old way. He acknowledges that breaking free from this cycle requires the conscious effort to reframe our thoughts and create new neural connections within our brains.

Seeking Feedback for Self-Discovery

Carlton believes that getting to know oneself begins by exposing oneself to others and seeking their feedback. He specifically highlights the valuable insights that can be gained through clinical feedback, such as therapy. By seeking professional guidance, individuals can embark on a journey of self-discovery and personal growth.

'The only way you can get to know yourself is by exposing yourself to other people and getting feedback. The best feedback is clinical feedback.'Click To Tweet

Giving Grace to Your Parents: Embracing Imperfection and Finding Growth

Unfortunately, there are students who may have grown up with emotionally immature parents. These are parents who don’t have the skill set to raise emotionally mature children. And a lot of that negative self-talk was placed by parents, siblings, or other people in this person’s life.

But Carlton emphasizes the importance of giving grace to our parents, recognizing that no one is ever fully prepared for the challenges of raising a child. He reflects on his own experience as a parent, acknowledging that each stage of childhood brings new and unfamiliar territory.

'We've all got parental baggage we're bringing with us because none of our parents were equipped to do what they did.'Click To Tweet

In order to extend grace to ourselves as parents, Carlton urges us to look back at our own upbringing and consider the limitations and circumstances our parents faced. By understanding their capacity and the lessons they were equipped with, we can appreciate the efforts they made, even if they fell short.

For Carlton, the ultimate goal of parenting is to raise children who can surpass their parents’ accomplishments. By giving our parents grace and acknowledging the limitations they had, we can focus on nurturing our own children to become better versions of ourselves.

Shifting Focus from Ideal States to Present Realities

Carlton introduces the concept of fixating on ideal states, where we yearn for perfect parents or an ideal upbringing. He encourages us to shift our perspective and recognize the importance of looking at what we received from our parents. Rather than chasing unattainable perfection, we should appreciate the tools and experiences that have shaped us.

Finding Value in Every Experience

Despite any shortcomings, Carlton reminds us to consider the basic necessities our parents provided, such as food and shelter. He encourages us to reflect on the positive aspects of our upbringing.

No matter the circumstances, there is always something to gain from our experiences and a chance for personal growth.

Embracing the Shared Journey

Carlton emphasizes that we are not alone in our feelings of wishing for different experiences or ideal parents. He highlights the universality of these sentiments and encourages us to use our own experiences to become better parents ourselves. By recognizing that others share similar sentiments, we can find solace and support in our collective journey.

Building Resilience: Pushing Through Moments of Doubt and Reconnecting with Purpose

Carlton acknowledges that throughout the extensive path of medical education, doubt is an inseparable companion. From the years invested in undergrad to the challenges of med school and residency, it is natural to question one’s abilities and wonder if success is achievable.

“No one goes through med school and residency or even prior to getting there without thinking they can't make it.”Click To Tweet

Rethink resilience.

Resilience, Carlton suggests, is not about avoiding moments of doubt but rather facing them head-on. It involves recognizing that the journey will be tough and acknowledging the existence of challenging moments. Instead of succumbing to self-doubt, resilience lies in revisiting the reasons why you embarked on this path in the first place.

Rediscover purpose and joy.

To bolster resilience, Carlton advises reconnecting with the driving force behind your decision to pursue medicine. Reflect on your identity and what motivates you to reignite the passion and determination needed to push through difficult times. Additionally, find time for rest, sleep, and activities that bring joy. This is crucial for maintaining mental well-being during the demanding journey.

Avoid counterproductive behaviors.

Carlton shares a “pro tip” based on personal experience, cautioning against doubling down on strategies that may have worked in the past but are ineffective in the present. Isolating oneself after a setback or failure can exacerbate negative thoughts and emotions. Instead, take a break and reach out to connect with others who can provide support and perspective.

Embrace moments of reconnection

When faced with doubts and challenges, Carlton emphasizes that it is important to take a pause and remind oneself of the initial motivation behind pursuing medicine. If the reasons remain aligned and meaningful, it is a sign to continue pushing forward and not let momentary setbacks deter progress.

'Resilience. It's not the lack of those thoughts. It's pushing through those thoughts.'Click To Tweet

Navigating the Fallacy of Sunk Costs: Finding Grace in Pivoting

Carlton delves into the fallacy of sunk costs, highlighting how many individuals feel compelled to continue on a particular path simply because they have invested significant time and effort into it. However, he urges students to reflect on their journey and give themselves the grace to pivot when necessary.

Have a true reflection on the journey.

According to Carlton, it is essential to engage in honest reflection about where we currently stand on our journey. While there may be substantial costs associated with our chosen path, it is crucial to consider whether continuing on that trajectory aligns with our true aspirations and well-being.

Practical considerations, such as financial obligations and loans, need to be factored into our decision-making process. It may not be wise to abandon a path and pursue unrelated endeavors if it means compromising our financial stability. However, Carlton emphasizes that solely focusing on financial considerations should not also override our personal fulfillment and happiness.

Embrace alternative paths.

Carlton acknowledges that there are often limited options available outside the traditional physician track, especially when faced with significant financial burdens. However, he reassures that alternative paths and opportunities do exist. It is crucial to explore these possibilities and find ways to utilize our skills and passions even if it deviates from the original plan.

When making decisions about our future, Carlton emphasizes the importance of self-reflection. Understanding our core motivations and values is key to determining whether our current path aligns with our authentic selves.

It is natural to question our choices multiple times throughout the journey. But reconnecting with our initial motivations and pushing through challenges can help us stay committed.

The World Needs Your Contribution

Carlton reminds us that pursuing a career in medicine is not an easy feat, which explains the ongoing physician shortage. Aspiring physicians are vital to meeting the healthcare needs of society. If individuals possess the ability and determination to continue, their contribution is essential and highly valued.

Building Resilience: Navigating Challenges and Building Support Networks

    • Resilience can be achieved through two approaches: being prepared for possible challenges or not identifying those challenges and navigating through them regardless.
  • It is valuable to anticipate potential obstacles at every stage of life, including premed and med school. Having a risk mitigation strategy in place can help overcome unexpected events, such as the death of a close family member, which may require taking a leave of absence.
  • While taking a break can be daunting, seeking advice from professors and mentors can offer guidance on whether to push through or take a break based on individual circumstances. Building a strong support network of peers and mentors is crucial in times of adversity, as they may provide assistance and resources when needed.
  • Protecting Your Academic Goals: Being Intentional About Capacity

  • When it comes to your academic goals, it’s crucial to be intentional about protecting your capacity. One aspect to consider is engaging in relationships, particularly with a significant other. If a relationship demands too much of your time and energy, it’s essential to evaluate whether it’s the right person or the right time for such commitment. 
  • Being intentional about risk mitigation and understanding the impact of factors that may drain your capacity is necessary. While it’s impossible to plan for every situation, having plans in place for potential challenges can elevate your thought process from being powerless to powerful. Consider various scenarios and explore options in advance. And this will empower you to take action and navigate difficulties with greater confidence.


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