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"Becoming a vet is like a calling"

It’s a big deal to get accepted into Vet School - for students and families alike. It takes hard work. Finishing the degree is even harder. While students don’t head to university oblivious to the challenges, they can still benefit from some support and advice, writes Kate Holland.


Dirty dishes on the desk, sleepless nights, very little downtime. These are things that most students experience in the hustle of their final school year, especially when they’ve set themselves a high benchmark to achieve. Those pursuing a veterinary degree face the chance of five to seven more years just like it.


Discussions about problems in the veterinary industry are rife, and you can appreciate why students are tired of the negativity. They chose the degree, after all. That said, there are some core reasons why they should get some systems in place.


Stress can affect them early. Suicide isn’t just high in vets, it’s high in vet students too.

Photo by Redd F on Unsplash


In a recent Australian study, vet students were reported to have high levels of psychological distress; 32.1% of vet students experienced moderate psychological distress, 27% high psychological distress, and 26.2% severe psychological distress. Female students reported more distress than male students and international students reports more distress than domestic students. Vet students’ psychological distress levels were higher than those of the general Australian population, medical students, practicing veterinarians, and junior medical officers.*


Jane Heller is Associate Professor in Veterinary Epidemiology and Public Health at Charles Sturt University. When she taught in the Vet School, Jane was instrumental in implementing a wellness program having seen so many students crawl over the finish line, rather than thrive.


Her reasoning for their struggle is layered. “The degree itself is very hard,” she said. “There is a lot to do, and the demands can create some distance between students and their loved ones.” In addition, the fact the same cohort goes through the degree together seems to make it harder to take time off. “There’s a very real stigma that I wish wasn't there, but it is,” she said.


Jane also suspects that the degree attracts some similar personality types. Usually, a combination of highly sensitive and highly driven. The kind of people who are unlikely to prioritise self-care. In fact, when Jane first created the Odyssey Program, inspired by one that had been run in the United States, she had to trick people into coming.


She merely told them she had something to talk to them about and when her guest stood up to talk about mindfulness some people were so angry that they got up and walked out. Admitting that things might need to be done differently caused a huge amount of discomfort. But over time a few people joined from each year level, and momentum was gained.


Her core messaging was this:

  • Get your head right at school.

  • Learn to fail and fail well.

  • Learn to work hard but play hard.

  • Be kind, to others and yourself.

  • Set up systems from the beginning. Simple things like buying bagged salad and canned protein to ensure that you eat.

  • Have exercise options in your own home to make sure you move.

  • Ensure you have strong support networks outside the vet school.

  • Get involved in alternative activities (like knitting or running etc).

Photo by Nikolay Georgiev: Pixabay


Jane said the benefit of the Odyssey Program was invaluable, particularly when it found the structure it needed to truly resonate – being student-led. Talks were run regarding issues like study and parenting or coping as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. A gratitude wall was set up. They held yoga classes. An alumni group even established its own network. Sadly, neither program exists today. As soon as it got too much for the person/people leading the charge, it fell away.


Which begs the question, what part does the government and industry have in all of this?


According to Jane, if they were to provide funds for mental health support it would do two things. “Number one, it would make it possible to run a program like this again (they don’t cost much at all, but they do need resources to assist in difficult times). Number two, it would signal to the students that their wellbeing is valued and important. Actual, visible support from the industry would show that it’s okay to need help.”


Moral distress among vet students


University of Adelaide Psychology student Kate Flynn is conducting a study exploring moral distress among vet students in Australia, and its link to poor mental health. The concept of moral stress is the feeling of powerlessness, anger, and guilt that veterinary professionals experience when they face a moral conflict being unable to practice according to their ethical standards.


Not much has been studied in this area and she’s hoping her research can guide recommendations for how to assist students to manage it. “Hopefully, if they are better prepared, they will have better mental health and be able to remain in the industry longer,” she said.


After all, “Becoming a vet is like a calling”, according to Associate Professor Jane Heller. It’s why so many find it hard to leave even when they’re struggling.



Kate Flynn's Moral Distress Study


She admires those who are challenging the status quo, despite criticism from older generations. Poor pay is not par for the course and if your services are not valued, it’s hard to value yourself. How then do you extricate yourself?


Her final piece of advice: “Pick and choose where you’re going. Find somewhere you are valued.”



Reference:

*Yang, H., Ward., M., & Fawcett, A. (2019), DVM students report higher psychological distress than Australian public, medical students, junior medical officers and practicing veterinarians, Australian Veterinary Journal, 97 (10), p. 373-381.

Links:

If you would like to know more about Kate Flynn’s study you can contact her directly, Ms Kate Flynn (kate.flynn@student.adelaide.edu.au) or her research supervisor, Dr Melissa Oxlad (melissa.oxlad@adelaide.edu.au).

To read more about the study or participate, veterinary students can also access the survey using this link: https://adelaideunisop.syd1.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_d4KC3gDpOzma2HA

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