Veterinary students more depressed than the rest

Veterinary medicine students are more likely to struggle with depression than human medicine students, undergraduate students and the general population, according to several recent collaborative studies from Kansas State University researchers.

Mac Hafen, therapist and clinical instructor in K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and researchers from K-State, the University of Nebraska and East Carolina University decided to take a closer look at depression and anxiety among veterinary medical students. Although the mental health of human medicine students has been extensively studied, the same extent of study has not been performed with veterinary medicine students. Additionally, most veterinary research related to depression involves pet owners, not veterinarians or students.

“We are hoping to predict what contributes to depression levels so that we can intervene and make things run a little bit more smoothly for students themselves,” said Hafen, who has spent five years researching the well-being and mental health of veterinary students.

Once a semester, the researchers anonymously surveyed veterinary medicine students in various stages of academic study. The survey helped uncover a rate of depression occurrence and understand how it related to the amount of stress veterinary students experience during their four years of study.

During the first year of veterinary school, 32 percent of the veterinary medicine students surveyed showed symptoms of depression, compared to 23 percent of human medicine students who showed symptoms above the clinical cutoff, as evidenced by other studies.

The researchers also discovered that veterinary students experience higher depression rates as early as the first semester of their first year of study. Their depression rates appear to increase even more during the second and third year of school. During the fourth year, depression rates drop down to first-year levels.

Hafen said several factors might contribute to the higher rate of depression in veterinary medicine students. Veterinarians deal with stressors that human medicine doctors do not have to experience, such as frequently discussing euthanasia with clients. Although both programs of study are intense, veterinarians must understand a variety of animal species rather than focusing on the human body. Struggles with balancing work, school and life could also lead to higher depression rates.

Hafen said gender differences could also play a role, although such claims are inconclusive so far. Whereas medical schools are nearly split evenly between male and female students, about 75 percent of veterinary medicine students are female. National studies indicate that women are two to three times more likely than men to suffer from mood disorders.

The research team’s studies found several other factors connected with higher depression occurrence, including: homesickness; uncertainty about academic expectations; a feeling of not belonging or not fitting in; and perceived physical health. The researchers had students rate their own physical health to indicate how they felt about their overall health. Students who were happier with their physical health had lower depression rates.

But the studies contain more than just negative news; they offer interventions and ways that veterinary schools and their faculty and staff can help students struggling with depression and anxiety. Some of these ways include:

* Having clearer expectations of veterinary students, especially during the first year.

* Sponsoring events and organizations that help improve physical health.

*Empathizing with students and their concerns about their studies.

The researchers are optimistic that by helping veterinary medicine students care for their own mental health, these students become better prepared to help clients.

“The hope is that we can identify some ways to help alleviate some of the depression and the symptoms of depression and anxiety that might be occurring,” Hafen said.

The researchers have already published two articles in the Journal of Veterinary Medicine Education about their work and are in the process of preparing another publication.

Hafen is also working on other research that looks at companion animal loss. He and researchers from the University of Nebraska have interviewed pet owners who have experienced companion animal loss to better understand the grieving process. They continue to gather empirical data for this study and are analyzing their findings.

“I have a sense for the grieving process from my own clinical work,” Hafen said. “But we wanted to look at it from more of an empirical standpoint.”

Other K-State researchers involved in these projects include: Bonnie Rush, professor and department head of clinical sciences, and Susan Nelson, associate professor of clinical sciences.

12 thoughts on “Veterinary students more depressed than the rest

  1. Its the loans which is the cause of stress for all of us. Job scenario is bleak. I think the whole veterinary business or the doctors (bull over achievers) is overrated. Period.

  2. The way they got this information was via surveys of us vet students a few years ago. They probably aren’t surveying anymore since they are obviously at a point where they are publishing the results. Financial stress was one of the survey questions. I haven’t read the actual journal articles so I don’t know what the stats are on the financial stress. What I can tell you from personal experience is, pretty much every vet student has stress from grades, unknown expectations, and physical health, however, not every vet student has financial stress. That may be why there is a higher percentage of stress coming those stressors mentioned in this article, and not from those not mentioned, but were actually surveyed. Just my 2 cents.

  3. The main reason vet students are depressed is their upcoming student debt load and their lack of future income. The ratio is ENORMOUS. Graduated in 2004, I have over $200,000 in student debt and can barely keep up with the loan payments, in addition to the car payment, the mortgage and life expenses…

    Especially that the current job situation is becoming a bit bleak and the competition for internships and residencies is more fierce than ever.

  4. As a vet student at K-State, I have to say that I am sickened at the amount of misleading information in this article. I have never been spoken to concerning my mental health by any faculty or staff at KSU and how much can you possibly know without actually speaking to the students?

    Let me first say that I fully agree with everything Margot said. I have never heard a single KSU vet student complain about how an animal, alive or dead, is used in our curriculum. Death, suffering, life and disease are things that most vet students are fairly well equipped to deal with.

    As far as physical health is concerned, it is a major source of stress. Vet students are over-achievers in both academics and their physical lives. Vet school leaves very little time for physical activities and our bodies and minds suffer for it. I doubt there are any vet students that haven’t gained weight during school because they have limited time for physical activity, or lost weight due to stress, poor nutrition, or under eating. Every minute spent exercising is a minute of studying lost. Mac should examine the relationship between good physical health and low grades. I did make my physical health a priority recently and my grades did suffer. Big deal, right? Well, yes. Future employers won’t care if I’m fit, but they will most definitely care about my low GPA. By choosing to make my physical health a priority, I have potentially cost myself many, many job opportunities.

    One of the many stressors not mentioned in this article is money. At K-State, vet student financial aid is based on graduate student tuition at 18 credit hours per semester. In actuality, vet student tuition rates are higher and we always take more than 18 hours per semester. The amount of money we are offered in financial aid is far less that what is needed. Let’s use my case as en example. I am an in-state student and am charged in-state tuition rates. As of today, I owe K-State just under $12,000.00 in tuition and fees for the fall semester. The books I ordered for the fall will cost around $700. The total amount of financial assistance I was offered this year is about $33,000. This means that in August, K-State will direct deposit $16,500.00 into my account, minus of course the $12,000.00 for tuition. Now further subtract the money for books and I am left with a whopping $3,800.00 to last from August through mid-January. The exact same thing will happen in the spring semester. Please, please find me a single vet student or any person in the United States who would not be stressed when given $3,800.00 per semester for all living expenses.

    Try not to take this article too seriously. I don’t.

    • As another veterinary student at this university, I have to second everything Kaycie has said. The fact that they don’t even mention our financial situations boggles my mind. The number one stressor, over everything we have to deal with, that always will send me into a panic if I think too much about it is my present and future financial situation. As an out of state student–paying double what Kaycie is–my debt upon graduation will be some where in the 240-250 thousand dollar range. In the years it will take me to pay that off, it will also accrue interest. Not to mention I still have to deal with my 3800/semester living with that hanging over our head.

      While I do not doubt that we may have higher depression rates than medical students, it’s not because of a lack of “support” or not having avenues available to us. It’s because we have to sacrifice our health for our grades (or vice versa), all while the specter of high student debt looms over our heads.

      You want me to be less stressed? Give me scholarships that actually make a dent in my tuition (without committing me to the military or an unknown rural community). I received more scholarship in a semester in undergrad (at Kansas State), than I have in two years of vet school. Design the loan programs so veterinary students can live on more than a few thousand dollars a semester without having to max out their ability to take the more expensive PLUS loans. Don’t give me seminars on how to be healthy…give me the means to be healthy! Give us more than one refrigerator for the entire building so we can bring healthier food, have class outside on occasion so we can get some sunlight and air, hook me up with some discount massage therapy (don’t tell me the local massage school wouldn’t jump all over that!), hook us up with discounts at local markets so we can eat healthier, DO something besides talk at me. I don’t have the time for your babble. I know what I need to do and I do the best I can. I just don’t have the time or money to do it better.

  5. Glad to see that more research is going on in the USA, Finally! Not mentioned in this article is the very high rate of depression and suicide among graduate veterinarians, all over the world. It is high time that we begin to acknowledge this trend, especially with the current (and probably permanent) shift within the profession to female dominance. As of 2009, the membership in AVMA is predominantly female!

    Too much “marketing” targets this profession, we need to encourage all members to feel free to be human beings, with real emotions, not some sort of cookie cutter robots who do what Big Pharma tell us to. We have human needs, and creativity which we have every right to exercise and fulfill within our lives as veterinarians. We are all wonderful, caring, and compassionate people and need to nourish ourselves, in order to be helpful caregivers.

  6. I graduated almost 30 years ago now and I am still (happily) in practice. At least in California now, there is NO animal sacrifice during the vet student educational process. During vet school I felt stressed during exams, but I felt overall very happy to have a chance to become a veterinarian.

    I do find most of my anxiety in day to day practice stems from the fact that animals do not talk and their human owners do…. I try very hard to figure out how the animal is feeling and convey this to the owner in some understandable way. Owners are not always willing to listen. Still I wish I could actually “Talk to the Animals” like Dr. Doolittle could.

  7. I imagine that one of the main stressors has to do with veterinary students’ intense connection with animals. This is probably a strong reason that most of the students have chosen this profession, their love of animals. And yet a great deal of their curriculum involves experimentation and practice on these animals. In many instances, the animals are killed at the end of the procedures, often with dissection and necropsy as part of the curriculum. In human medicine, there is never a need to “sacrifice” the patients. In fact, practice on animal models is the accepted way of learning how to treat humans. The only humans used for practice are cadavers. For veterinary training, animals are also the accepted models, ignoring any ethical concerns the students may have about this. In human medicine, the patients are people and they are also the clients. In veterinary practice, animals are consider property, and the actual clients are the owners, not the patients. This poses serious ethical conflicts in anyone who cares about animals. One solution would be to train vet students in clinical settings rather than in laboratory experiments where the animals are treated as disposable equipment.

    • I totally agree. I graduated 45 years ago, and sort of hoped that some of the procedures we had to subject animals to had been done away with. It is interesting that the PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) campaigns actively to stop the use of animals for research and teaching in medical schools, but I never hear about such campaigns targeting veterinary schools. I almost dropped out of school my first year because I was so appalled by the barbaric experiments we had to subject animals to in the name of learning. I suppose I eventually became numb to the suffering, but that numbness could easily be manifested by depression.

    • Maureen, are you a veterinarian or a current veterinary student? The issue of how to train veterinary students has been a hot-button issue for some time and veterinary schools are watched very closely by animal rights groups. I think if you actually visited campuses here in the US, or talked to current veterinary students, you would find that compassionate and ethical treatment of teaching animals is the rule, rather than the exception. I am currently in veterinary school and feel strongly that my university does an excellent job of caring for its teaching animals. The surgeries I expect to perform next year as a junior student in our general surgery lab will be spays and neuters on adoptable shelter cats and dogs, many students go on to help find permanent homes for these animals, or adopt them themselves. In no way does our university ignore students if they have ethical concerns, nor does it promote “sacrificing” animals to further our education.

    • What Margot said is correct, and if that is the view you have on what goes on in a veterinary school, I think you would be pleasantly surprised at the reality. Yes, we look at animals at necropsy, and sometimes animals are put down after we practice with them, but those animals are usually destined for that purpose anyways. Dissection is part of our curriculum, but on…cadavers. These aren’t surrendered or patient animals that we are euthanizing and dissecting. And never, ever, have we treated a single teaching animal as disposable equipment. If we did, we’d be thrown out. We certainly do not experiment on them!! Our teaching animals are very well taken care of and sometimes would have been put down long before hand if they had remained with their previous owners. The sort of treatment you talk about is an unaccepted exception…not the rule.

  8. I think the problem is even more severe in African countries where respect to the profession is not given a due attention and the rate of unemployment and underpaid is high compared to the students of human Medicine. .

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