Mental health, emotional openness powerful themes at Medicine Convocation

May 30, 2017 at 10:01 am


“Don’t hire a cranky receptionist.”

When Her Excellency Sharon Johnston, the honorary degree recipient at the Medicine Convocation on May 18, gave that advice to the graduating doctors, we all laughed.

But Her Excellency, a mental-health champion in her public role as the wife of Governor General David Johnston, was making an important point about our duty to act with compassion.

It’s the role of all health-care workers across the Rady Faculty of Health Sciences, including front-desk staff, to respond with kindness to individuals who are in psychological distress.

Health-care providers must have the knowledge and training to refer patients to appropriate mental-health or addiction resources. We wouldn’t turn our backs on a person who presents with a gaping physical wound. We must recognize that emotional suffering can also be life-threatening.

In keeping with this, in my own Convocation remarks, I reminded the Max Rady College of Medicine Class of 2017 that doctors are accountable to all members of the community, and that patients will be their greatest teachers. Patients and their families are entitled to a listening ear, a gentle touch and an empathetic heart.

A second piece of advice to the graduates from Her Excellency, who has a health-care background in rehabilitation sciences, was to seek your colleagues’ support when you are hurting.

“Fatigue, burnout, family stress and coping behaviours, including alcohol and drugs, are as prevalent in health-care circles as anywhere,” Her Excellency said. “Be open to each other. Listen to each other. Support each other. The healers must heal themselves.”

Finally, she counselled, be honest with yourself when you’re struggling. “You are entering a profession with notoriously high demands,” she said. “It is right and honourable to ask for help if you need it.”

I couldn’t agree more. Traditionally, physicians tried to appear superhuman in the face of stress and sadness. Today, we teach medical students to embrace their humanity, including feelings such as fear, grief, self-doubt and anxiety. Only with self-care and team support can we adequately care for patients.

The 113-member Class of 2017 is the U of M’s largest-ever graduating class in medicine. Two-thirds are staying in Manitoba for residency training. The class includes seven French-speaking bilingual graduates and nine of self-declared Indigenous ancestry.

Valedictorian Tharunamaya (Tharuna) Abbu grew up in Winkler after coming to Canada from South Africa. She has chosen to do her family medicine residency in a hospital program that cares for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside communities. She will undoubtedly encounter many vulnerable people facing mental-health and addiction challenges.

“Please always allow your hearts to be moved,” Tharuna told her classmates in her eloquent address.

“Bend to grief when the patient who reminds you of your grandfather passes in the middle of the night. Roll with laughter when the infant you are examining pees on your favourite shoes.

“Rise with integrity when you witness injustice. And extend your hand in kindness, over and over and over, to those whose humanity has been forgotten.”

Congratulations to all the graduates. Let’s keep these speakers’ words close to our hearts.

What words of advice have guided you as a health-care practitioner?