An Internal Perspective: the Psychological Impact of Mistreatment

Acad Psychiatry. 2021 Mar 11. doi: 10.1007/s40596-021-01430-1. Online ahead of print.


Objectives: Student mistreatment remains a prominent issue in medical education. Mistreatment has been linked to negative mental health outcomes, including depression, anxiety, and burnout. Continued challenges in this arena include difficulties in identifying mistreatment and underreporting. The objective of this study was to better understand the nuances of individual students' reactions to mistreatment.

Methods: Medical students, who had experienced mistreatment, were invited to participate in this study. Individual, semi-structured, peer-to-peer interviews were conducted with 21 students. Interview transcriptions were coded using grounded theory and inductive analysis, and themes were extracted.

Results: The interviews generated 34 unique mistreatment incidents. Four major themes arose in students' reactions to mistreatment. (1) Descriptions-the student described the incident as inappropriate, unusual, or unnecessary. (2) Recognition-most students did not immediately recognize the incident as mistreatment. (3) Emotions-the student described negative emotions (negative self-views, anger, powerlessness, shock, discomfort) associated with the mistreatment incident. (4) Coping mechanisms-the student utilized avoidance and rationalization to process their mistreatment.

Conclusions: Mistreatment generates complex emotions and coping mechanisms that impair the learning process. These complex emotions and coping mechanisms also make it difficult for trainees to identify mistreatment and to feel safe to report. Increasing understanding of the psychological impact of mistreatment can help peers and educators better screen for mistreatment in trainees and guide them in reporting decisions.

Keywords: Coping mechanisms; Reactions; Student mistreatment.