Background: Medical students and residents are known to have high rates of depression, a common stress-related challenge that impairs quality of life and job satisfaction and predisposes those affected to general medical illness. Our primary hypothesis was that premedical students would exhibit greater depressive symptoms than nonpremedical students. A secondary aim was to explore the interactions of premedical student status with gender and ethnicity in the context of depression.
Method: In this cross-sectional study 647 premedical and 1,495 nonpremedical undergraduates at the University of California, San Diego, were surveyed to examine whether seeds of depression can be identified even before formal medical training. Participants completed a series of demographic questions along with the 9-item Patient Health Questionnaire to gauge depression intensity. The survey was made available online for a period of 3 months from March 2009-June 2009.
Results: Premedical students were more likely to meet screening criteria suggestive of the presence of major depressive disorder and to exhibit more severe depression than nonpremedical students. Female premedical students exhibited greater depression than female nonpremedical students and males in general. Hispanic premedical students, in particular, had a greater prevalence of depression and greater intensity of depressive symptoms than other premedical students and Hispanic nonpremedical students. No differences were found in current, past, or family history between premedical and nonpremedical students.
Conclusions: These findings underscore the importance of understanding the unique strains and mental health consequences of a premedical curriculum, especially for women and certain minority ethnic populations. A meaningful next step would be a larger study, conducted by several representative university campuses, to confirm these findings; a follow-up of these cohorts could track longitudinal progress. More research must be done to determine the etiology of these findings with the ultimate intention of identifying opportunities for prevention and early intervention, which may provide significant public health payoffs in the long run.