University students across the board can experience stress and mental health issues. Research by the National Union of Students found that 92 per cent of students had felt mental distress, with 20 per cent considering themselves to have a mental health problem.
Veterinary students are a good example of those on high-pressure, vocational courses who are particularly likely to be at the negative end of the student well-being spectrum.
Last year, the Vet Futures 2015 survey “Voices from the Future of the Profession” found that the top goal for veterinary students and recent graduates was “better veterinary lives (wellbeing)”, with 80 per cent of respondents rating this as highly important. As the president of the Association of Veterinary Students, I am all too aware of the stress-related and mental health issues that students can experience.
Why is this?
The pressures that start at student selection – the university environment, individuals striving for high standards and coping with both personal and external expectations – all have a role to play.
Vocational courses are about more than just study; they represent a commitment to a profession and a way of life – a big undertaking for someone aged 17. To secure a place, applicants are encouraged to complement high grades with work experience, demonstrating their devotion to and understanding of their chosen profession. While valuable, this work can limit the time spent pursuing other extracurricular activities such as sport, music and the arts – activities that can provide meaningful outlets later on in study and life.
My experience is that once at vet school, the vocational aspect and identity as a “vet” grows stronger, which can take over life and, potentially, diminish individuality.
Just like for many other university courses, the study, as well as the social scene, from the very beginning is intense, while holidays are filled with work placements and, later, clinical practice. While these represent an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on experience, they can leave students feeling alienated from their peers on purely academic courses, who may be able to relax or gain paid employment during the same “breaks” from university.
This “vet bubble”, variations of which exist on other vocational courses, can also limit choice and freedom, things I believe to be key to happiness. Once you enrol, you are on a set track for the next five years. It could be argued that traditionally there is little emphasis put on individuality and that academic competence and exam results overshadow the importance of building character and resilience.
While there are signs that things are changing – some vet schools are now offering resilience training – the sense that you are on a fixed path into your new profession can feel overbearing.
At times, the bubble of vet school can be warm, inclusive and inspiring; but at others, particularly exam times, it can be almost unbearable. There can be a sense of perfectionism and a pressure on yourself that add to a toxic cocktail of influences and raise stress levels. Heavy expectations placed on students by their own families as well as themselves can be difficult to deal with.
So what can be done? Quite a lot.
In the veterinary world, a lot of work is under way to help address well-being and mental health issues among students. The Mind Matters initiative launched by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons aims to proactively increase access to, and acceptance of, support for veterinary students and vets experiencing stress and mental health issues. The Vetlife Helpline provides free and confidential support to the veterinary community, including veterinary students.
I strongly believe that giving students a greater sense of choice and freedom within vocational courses would not be impossible and could be extremely beneficial.
Helena Diffey is president of the Association of Veterinary Students.