Veterinary students could be more vulnerable to depression than their counterparts in human medicine or even the general population, according to US researchers.
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 Mac Hafen, therapist and clinical instructor in Kansas State's College of Veterinary Medicine.
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 University of Nebraska and East Carolina University collaborated with the K-state team in the studies.