Anecdotal evidence suggested that hopelessness and helplessness (HH) were often reported by undergraduate medical students. It is known that medical students are more susceptible to high levels of stress and depression than other student groups. There is currently concern about suicide rates in students and high drop-out rates in junior doctors. But what can be said of HH within this population? This study was aimed at eliciting medical students’ experiences of HH. An interpretive phenomenological approach was adopted. Participants were recruited from a single medical school. Loosely structured, audio-recorded interviews were carried out. Recordings were then transcribed verbatim, then underwent an interpretive phenomenological analysis. Three participants were recruited. Their stories report some devastating experiences – ranging from social isolation to homelessness and suicidal ideation. Our cases complement the existing literature. Awareness of the issues raised in these cases may help medical educators to better understand and support others in similar situations. These may also benefit those experiencing HH themselves. We hope that this exploratory project paves the way to further study.


medical students, medical education, hopelessness, helplessness, depression, coping, support, interpretive phenomenology

Author Bio(s)

Sebastian C. K. Shaw is an honorary clinical lecturer within the Department of Medical Education at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the UK. His areas of teaching focus on research methods (particularly qualitative research methods) and medical education. His research interests focus on diversity in medical education and student support. He also works clinically as a doctor in the UK NHS. Please direct correspondence to sebastian.shaw@doctors.org.uk.

John L. Anderson is a principal lecturer in the Department of Medical Education at Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the UK. He is a medical sociologist whose career over the past fifty years has been teaching and research with various medical schools. His research interests have included death and dying, cancer, communications, psycho-social aspects of health and illness, and medical education. For ten years, he has led the research methods teaching on postgraduate medical courses at Brighton. He is also trained in, and practices transactional analysis psychotherapy. Please direct correspondence to j.anderson@bsms.ac.uk.


We would like to thank those who were brave enough to participate within this study. We would also like to thank the Brighton and Sussex Medical School Student Support department for kindly reviewing the initial plan for this project.

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