Social anxiety disorder, a psychological condition characterized by significant anxiety about social interactions, is prevalent among medical students in Sudan, a new study finds.
Symptoms of the disorder, also known as social phobia, include shyness, stress, and a tendency to stay silent and to avoid dealing with others, the study’s authors say, and it can affect students’ grades and, in extreme cases, lead to significant psychological and behavioral problems.
Many people may experience some degree of social anxiety disorder at some point in their lives, but the problem may be particularly prevalent among Sudan’s doctors in training because of unique pressures they have had to cope with in recent years, including disruptions at universities caused by political unrest, climate emergencies, and a confusing series of changes in the medical education system itself, the study’s authors and medical educators say. (See two related articles, “Sudan’s Floods Destroy Schools and Dreams” and “Sudan’s Academic Year Begins—But Only for a Few Universities.”)
The study, titled “Prevalence of Social Anxiety Disorder among Medical Students from Six Medical Schools in Khartoum State” and published in the Sudan Journal of Medical Sciences, was conducted by four medical students from four different universities in Sudan and Egypt.
The authors found the disorder was common among the 375 medical students who participated in the research. Overall, more than 60 percent of the students in the study experienced some degree of social anxiety disorder, and more than 20 percent of them experienced it in a “severe” or “very severe” form, according to the study.
“The research’s main focus was not to study the symptoms but rather to know the degree of the disorder’s prevalence and complications,” said Hazeem Abdeljaleel Suleiman, the study’s lead author, in a phone call. Complications included low academic achievement, suicidal thoughts and substance-abuse issues, he said.
“The research’s main focus was not to study the symptoms but rather to know the degree of the disorder’s prevalence and complications.”Hazeem Abdeljaleel Suleiman
The study’s lead author
Social anxiety disorder often spreads among adolescents, but the four student researchers noticed the prevalence of many of its symptoms among their medical colleagues. This prompted them to set up an online questionnaire to monitor its prevalence. Social phobia affects the patient’s daily activity, like the ability to study and work, and usually requires medication and psychological support and intervention. (See a related article, “Lebanese University Researchers Zero In on Students’ Stress and Depression.”)
Academic Stress Factors
Some expert academics believe that the nature of medical studies plays a major role in the spread of this disorder among students.
“Scientific disciplines put students under stress and psychological pressure due to the large number of subjects and the difficulty of medical scientific terminologies,” said Mohammed Fath al-Bab, a professor at Al-Mada’in University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences in Khartoum, in a phone call.
Those conditions are in addition to factors like the students’ “social environment in such high-competitive colleges, and the high skills they have to obtain within a short period of time,” he said.
Changes affecting the system of teaching medicine at Sudanese universities are additional stress factors.
“In most medical colleges, semesters have been shortened,” Abdalaziz Awad Alobeid, a study co-author, said in a phone call. “Also, there is no officially approved textbook of scientific subjects, which pushes students to rely on external textbooks, unlike what is followed abroad, where a printed textbook for each department is available from the beginning of the year.”
Khalid Mohammed Khalid El-Hussein, deputy dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Omdurman Ahlia University, believes that the problem lies in the reliance of some universities on imported study systems that are locally amended by increasing the number of academic years or the number of exams the student takes. “This causes confusion and instability among the teaching staff and students alike,” he said.
“We encourage more future studies that would avoid our study’s limitations and include a larger number of medical students with a focus on therapeutic interventions.”Abdalaziz Awad Alobeid
A co-author of the study
The disruptions caused by the country’s political situation have also increased student stress, El-Hussein said. He noted that most colleges have operated for only two semesters since 2019. (See a related article, “Sudan Shutters All Its Universities.”)
More Support for Students
The study is intended to prompt Sudan’s health-care institutions to pay more attention to social phobia and anxiety disorders in general, say the study authors, besides educating medical students on how to deal with this disorder, especially since their future work requires intensive community interaction, and attending academic meetings and conferences. (See a related article, “Mental Health Support for Students Is Still in Early Stages in the U.A.E.”)
“We encourage more future studies that would avoid our study’s limitations and include a larger number of medical students with a focus on therapeutic interventions,” said Alobeid.
The study recommends launching outreach programs to raise awareness about social anxiety disorder, especially among medical students. Such programs would include disorder definition, stress management measures to relieve symptoms, and encourage getting psychological help.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Meanwhile, Mona Mohammed Al-Amin, deputy dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Omdurman Islamic University and head of the Department of Community Medicine at the university, suggests establishing psychiatric and community medicine centers at Sudanese universities to enhance psychological support for students in light of the pressures they face, due to the nature of study or economic conditions, besides working on updating and modernizing curricula.
“The issue of mental health cannot be ignored while preparing medical practitioners,” she said.