Long before Matthew Goldfinger entered medical school, he heard a sobering statistic about physicians, medical students, depression, and suicide rates: hundreds of doctors commit suicide annually in the United States, and medical students have higher rates of depression than the general population.
"I was horrified by what I read," says Goldfinger, a second-year student at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM). "It was frightening."
Goldfinger is president of NYITCOM's student chapter of the American College of Osteopathic Neurologists and Psychiatrists. He led a team of students on Oct. 25 at the annual Out of the Darkness walk at Jones Beach organized by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
"I'm a mental health-oriented person," he says. "I was a psychology major and neuroscience minor, and I've been acutely aware of issues of depression and suicide."
Openly talking about depression is vital for the suffering person, yet Goldfinger says too many people feel they have to "sneak through the shadows." He says, "I've helped people who were having trouble but were afraid of the repercussions of asking for help. I never judged them for it." Hotlines and support groups offer assistance to those who seek it, but it is also important to raise awareness and funds for mental health research on a larger level. That's why events like the Out of Darkness walk are so important.
Goldfinger recalls a grim moment at last year's walk that illustrates the scope of mental health problems leading to suicide. Participants were given heart-shaped stickers and asked to write on them the names of people they knew who took their own lives. "There were so many people affected by it that we actually ran out of hearts," he says. "People tore their own stickers in half to share."
Goldfinger is mindful that osteopathic medical education emphasizes a "whole person" approach, including mental health issues that affect physical health. "There is a moral imperative to seeing mental health through the same lens we use for other pathologies or illnesses," he says. "Being sad or overwhelmed is normal, much as being short of breath after a run is normal. Both become abnormal when they happen with no apparent cause and are hard to stop. Those situations need medical attention."
Different approaches to treatment may be required depending on the person. Talk therapy for mental health issues may be helpful for some, while others may benefit from medications or even electrical stimulation of the deep brain structures, in which currents are directed to small, specific areas.
Goldfinger emphasizes that medical students also need to acknowledge periods of self-doubt and sadness and reach out for support without fear of seeming weak. He hopes all physicians—including his future colleagues—can be role models for others and are not punished or shunned for seeking help when they need it.
"I dream of the day that anyone can say, 'I'm going to the doctor because I'm not so happy and I need to address it,' " Goldfinger says.