What’s Driving So Many Med Students to Abuse Drugs?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

When I was in law school, our lives revolved around alcohol, plus the state university I was enrolled at sponsored twice weekly bar tabs at swanky bars downtown. With all expenses covered, it was the perfect way to reward ourselves after long days with our noses in a textbook.

For three years, we worked hard and played hard, drinking away the pressure we felt and the rising law school debt we were in. For many, including myself, alcohol became an escape from the demanding lifestyle we had chosen, often leading to bad habits involving the drug, or worse, complete dependence.

As it turns out, medical students aren’t so different – at least in the substance abuse arena.

Medical Issues

Some shocking new research findings reveal medical students have double the rate of alcohol abuse or dependence, compared with surgeons, U.S. physicians and the general public.

To arrive at these findings, researchers at the Mayo Clinic contacted 12,500 medical students. Of the 4,402 who responded, approximately 1,400, or about one-third of respondents, met diagnostic criteria for alcohol abuse or dependence, measured using the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. To give a different frame of perspective, authors noted that a recent sample of college-educated persons aged 22 to 34 years in the United States showed that only 15.6 percent had alcohol abuse/dependence, compared to the 32.4 percent of medical students meeting the same diagnostic criteria.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for alcohol dependence among medical students vary across the board, but those showing the strongest association with alcohol abuse were emotional burnout, depression, low mental quality of life and low emotional quality of life. The data also showed that alcohol abuse/dependence was more likely among those who were younger, single or had a student loan debt of more than $100,000.

“This is the first study to explore the relationship between alcohol abuse/dependence and burnout among medical students,” said senior author Lotte N. Dyrbye, MD, professor of medicine and medical education at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota.

Although burnout, younger age and being single have previously been identified as risk factors for alcohol abuse in medical students, the Mayo Clinic findings are the first to show a relationship with student debt.

Dangerous Debt, Dangerous Pressure

As of 2014, the average medical student graduated with a debt of $180,000. However, this number is expected to increase in future years, especially since the cost of attending medical school has risen by a staggering 200 percent in the past decade. If educational debt does continue to rise, especially in the face of lower earnings, the authors believed the psychological toll of educational debt could become even more severe. Already, the rate of suicidal ideation of medical students (9.4 percent) was reported as being higher than the rate reported in the general US population (5.7 percent among 18-29-year-olds).

“Our findings clearly show there is reason for concern,” Dyrbye added. “We recommend institutions pursue a multifaceted solution to address related issues with burnout, the cost of medical education and alcohol abuse.”

Additional Reading:   Let’s Talk About Racism…and Alcoholism

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