Quinn McConnell ’23 spent the summer comparing the nation’s 38 veterinary schools – not on their approach to animal care, but rather their support for people.
McConnell, who would like to go to veterinary school, did the work as part of a research project with Greenville, South Carolina, veterinarian Dr. Andy Roark. The research looks at why veterinarians are at a significantly higher risk of suicide than the general population and what veterinary schools are doing to promote students’ mental health.
Practicing veterinarians are three times more likely than the general population to have considered suicide and 1 ½ times more likely to have experienced a depressive episode since leaving veterinary school, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Female veterinarians are 3 ½ times more likely to die from suicide as the general population, Roark said.
“Mental health and suicide prevention are large issues in veterinary medicine,” he said. “Our research into mental health and well-being for veterinarians and veterinary students is of critical importance.”
As part of the research, McConnell interviewed about one dozen practicing veterinarians.
“They said veterinary school is, generically, a challenging environment, and most people I talked to agree that it has a culture that catalyzes the risk of mental distress,” McConnell said. “A lot of students that enter veterinary school have personalities that aren’t set up for them to take good care of themselves when placed in a culture that is a competitive environment.”
The stresses that students face in veterinary school, she learned, are different from the pressures they face in the profession.
“There’s a stigma around getting help if you’re struggling because you’re seen as weaker than your classmates,” McConnell said. “There’s also the fear of losing time that you could have been studying or preparing for an exam. So, it’s very uncommon for students to seek help even if they recognize they need it.”
As part of the project, McConnell is creating a ranking system of all veterinary schools. The rankings consider class size, the number of social workers and counselors linked to the veterinary school, and the depth of mental health and wellness resources available to students. The rankings will not be publicly available, but published results will include quantitative data, she said.
McConnell said every school has a mental health counselor attached to either the university or specifically to the veterinary school. The difference comes in the number of full-time mental health counselors per student ratio, the number of full-time social workers on staff, and whether the school has a director of wellness in charge of advertising and providing opportunities for students to relieve stress.
“It was telling how universities differed in the number of counselors they had,” she said.
The next step will be a survey of veterinary students to determine how stressed they feel and their awareness of their school’s mental health and well-being offerings, Roark said. The survey has been submitted for Institutional Review Board approval. Roark and McConnell hope to find a correlation between certain types of resources and happier veterinary students.
“The dream would be to identify some practices that seem to be really making a difference,” he said.
Roark said through her research, McConnell is getting a rare insight into a field that she hopes to join.
“Doing this research has shown me how having that support and commitment to mental and physical health is so important, and arguably more important than going to the ‘best’ school,” she said. “It has changed my dream schools. It’s shown me that doing the due diligence to understand the culture of schools is important.”