One of the problems of the study is the mix of perception and reality, Schwenk concedes. "Perception is reality: whether the students who are depressed just view their environment more negatively, or think other students are stigmatizing them—it doesn't really as much as students believe it."
Another significant problem is that there appears to be hesitancy on the part of colleagues to reach out and help their peers, says Schwenk. "Why is that we as physicians have a hard time reaching out and helping our colleagues? Is it because we are all scared—a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God kind of thing?"
From a patient's perspective, the study shows that medical students may have some intolerance toward patients with depressive symptoms, says Schwenk.
"If medical students are critical of each other about depression, how does that transfer to patients? We don't want the medical education experience to make them less tolerant of mental illness."
The study needs to be addressed by medical schools, and further research needs to be done, he says. "We want to provide a medical education environment in which depression is treated like any other medical problem, worthy of treatment, detection and prevention," Schwenk says. "Most importantly, we want the medical students to be comfortable seeking help. Somehow we have to change the environment in which we are teaching future physicians."
Stigma over any mental illness "seems to be lessening among the general public," Schwenk says. For the medical profession? It seems certainly to be "lagging behind," he acknowledges.