Helpful solutions for harmful stressors

May 11, 2018
Hannah Wagle, Associate Content Specialist

Veterinary schooland, lets face it, the profession in generalis riddled with stressors that harm mental and physical health. Here, experts and students at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine share some of the most common pressures they see as well as some positive fixes to combat them.

Photo: Shutterstock.comIt's no hidden secret among veterinary professionals: Veterinary school comes with an abundance of stressors that can irreparably alter the mental health of students. According to Jennifer Bradtke, director of psychology at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine's (RUSVM) counseling center, and Elpida Artemiou, PhD, assistant professor of clinical communications at RUSVM, these common stressors can include unsatisfactory family and personal relationships, excessive work load, chronic sleep deprivation and difficulty fitting in with peers.

Seventh-semester students at RUSVM Julie Cohen and Suresh Singh can only agree, and often speak of the stress and fatigue they face as veterinary students.

“Everyone faces their own personal and academic challenges in veterinary school,” Cohen says in an exclusive interview with dvm360. “Sometimes, it seems like the worst things that could happen in your life happen during veterinary school. One of the most common-and most devastating-challenges veterinary students face is loss. We feel guilty for taking time off to attend a funeral or grieve with family. On a similar note, we miss celebrations such as weddings or graduations for the same reasons.”

A lesson from across the pond

Singh explains how coping mechanisms in the veterinary school community in the United Kingdom differ from those in the United States.

“I think the UK has done a better job than the U.S. in addressing the mental health needs of veterinary students,” she says. For example, she says the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has a watch list for people showing signs of burnout.

“Anyone can anonymously submit a ‘Notice of Caution' regarding someone in need of help, and someone in the college will reach out to them and offer help,” Singh says. “This is something I feel American veterinary students need.”

Along with personal troubles, there are problems that come from the medical work as well. “Stressors are a natural part of any field,” Singh explains. “However, in medicine we have stresses coming from two fronts: external stressors from clients and internal stressors from ourselves to be the best professionals we can be. If something goes wrong, we take it personally. In addition, clients are not shy about letting us know when they're displeased with the services provided.”

These issues, coupled with the common stressors found in veterinary school, prompted these students and experts to find solutions. “Faculty and staff joined a two-day retreat with the focus on practicing a series of mind-body medicine techniques,” Artemiou explains. This was where they conducted a study which compared changes in cortisol level and mindfulness to a control group of faculty and staff.

The study found that 30 percent of the veterinary students were at risk for burnout, and 21 percent reported compassion fatigue.

But Cohen says she thinks the results about self-reported feelings could be misleading.

“Veterinary students and veterinarians are mostly type-A perfectionists,” Cohen says. “Most of us don't want to admit that we feel burnout. Any sign of weakness validates our impostor syndrome. I believe the real numbers are higher, but most won't admit it.”

Advice from a fellow veterinary student

Cohen learned valuable lessons that she wished more students knew when it comes to combating the stressors of veterinary school. “I try to embrace a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.,” Cohen explains. “He said, ‘We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.'”

“My friends always say to me, ‘Never let them win,'” Cohen continues. “Do not let the feelings of impostor syndrome interfere with your happiness and your dream of becoming a veterinarian. Do not let your feelings of inadequacy affect your academic and clinical performance. And do not be afraid to ask for help.”

Out of the study also came solutions for veterinary students to implement in their lives to combat stress. According to Artemiou, these include healthy habits for sleep, diet and exercise; meditating and practicing mindfulness; integrating gratitude as part of a regular routine; monitoring emotions and keeping in positive motion; and spending time with family and friends outside of the profession.

Cohen shared her favorites in the dvm360 interview: “There are three that I use to cope. First, I find something I love. In my preclinical studies, I was happiest in surgery, then I went to my clinical rotations and realized how much I loved clinical pathology. It's acceptable to change what that thing may be, but you have to find something in veterinary medicine that makes you happy.

“Second, I make time for self-care. That may be taking the time to exercise, play with your dog, journal or simply relax and do nothing. No one can tell you what your getaway is, but the most important thing is to make time for yourself.

“Lastly, and most importantly, [doctors and students should] find a mentor who helps build you instead of breaking you. We all need someone in the field who will encourage and believe in us. Find a mentor who will provide confidence-boosting experiences and who wants to help you be an amazing veterinarian.”

Singh likes to make sure she has coping mechanisms for both mental and physical stressors.

“There's a gray area between the two, making them almost indistinguishable in many instances,” Singh says. “For me, I rely more on physical coping methods that take me away from the clinic. Some include scuba diving, going to the gym, cooking a meal or going out with friends. Being outside of the clinic is a good way to fully remove yourself from the stressors around you while you're in there. Simple things like taking your full lunch break and taking days off when you need them can really improve your overall outlook and stress levels.”