Changing the culture in medical schools to meet mental health needs

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Omar Sultan Haque, MD, PhD, talks with Lorenzo Norris, MD, about the need for medical schools to become responsive to physicians, medical students, and residents with mental disabilities.

Dr. Haque is a physician, social scientist, and philosopher who is affiliated with the department of global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School, Boston. He disclosed founding Dignity Brain Health, a clinic that seeks to provide clinical care for patients struggling with major depressive disorder. Dr. Haque also serves as medical director of Dignity Brain Health.

Dr. Norris is associate dean of student affairs and administration at George Washington University, Washington. He has no disclosures.

Take-home points

  • Dr. Haque and colleagues recently published a perspective piece in the New England Journal of Medicine about the “double stigma” against mental disabilities, which the authors define as “psychiatric, psychological, learning, and developmental disorders that impair functioning,” including common diagnoses, such as attention deficit disorder and major depressive disorder.
  • Physicians and physicians-in-training, such as students and residents, face major challenges in disclosing mental disabilities, from fear of discrimination during the admissions process to stigma throughout training and licensure.
  • Medical leave is often the only suggested solution to an exacerbation of a disability, and this response is likely to instill fear in trainees, because taking leave will require future disclosure and worsen the double stigma. Reasonable accommodations could improve functioning and allow trainees to remain enrolled and on their desired academic path.
  • Dr. Haque recommends that medical schools and training programs have trained disability service providers (DSP) with specialized understanding of medical education and curricula who do not have conflicts of interest – as sometimes happens when they participate in other roles, such as serving as deans or professors within a medical school.
  • A continued challenge to disability disclosures are questions on medical licensing applications and renewals about past or current diagnoses or treatment for mental disabilities. Dr. Haque reminds listeners that, according to the American Disabilities Act, these questions about past and current diagnoses are illegal if the answers to those questions do not affect physicians’ current functioning.


  • Dr. Haque’s article offers several recommendations for medical schools, training programs, and licensing boards aimed at addressing the burden of the double stigma against mental disabilities within the culture of medical training and practice.
  • Medical schools should clearly communicate that applicants with disabilities are welcome as part of a larger commitment to diversity, and individuals with mental disabilities should be admitted and allowed to complete training.
  • Universities should hire medical school–specific disability service providers who understand medical education and are committed to parity for individuals with physical and mental disabilities.
  • Policies related to mental disabilities should be clearly publicized so that students and trainees know what to expect if they disclose a disability, and should create reasonable accommodations for those with mental disabilities instead of promoting medical leave as the only option.
  • Faculty members and administrators could publicly describe their own protected time for therapy and highlight the professional successes of people who were able to disclose their condition and get reasonable accommodations.
  • The Federation of State Medical Boards should enforce the ADA-based legal standard that questions about mental disabilities should be asked and answered only if they address current functional impairments that affect a physician’s ability to practice medicine safely.


Haque OS et al. N Engl J Med. 2021 Mar 11;384:888-9.

Wimsatt LA et al. Am J Prevent Med. 2015 Nov. 49(5):703-14.

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Show notes by Jacqueline Posada, MD, associate producer of the Psychcast; assistant clinical professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University, Washington; and staff physician at George Washington Medical Faculty Associates, also in Washington. Dr. Posada has no conflicts of interest.

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