MVB, MRCVS, CERTVR, Ph.D., DIPECVP, FRCPATH
Dr. Sean Callanan was appointed dean of the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine in 2016. He previously served as a professor of veterinary pathology, director of postgraduate studies and head of the department of biomedical sciences and the Center for Integrative Mammalian Research. He is an American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges board member.Read Articles Written by Sean Callanan
A combination of workforce turnover and the pandemic-related bottleneck of pet care needs has brought a renewed focus on the demands being placed on veterinarians. At the same time, we have seen a societal shift in and an acceptance of the need to support mental health and wellness. This convergence of factors makes now the optimal time for veterinary businesses, organizations and educational institutions to advance initiatives that better support the well-being of veterinary professionals and future veterinarians.
As the dean of the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, which has nearly 6,000 alumni and affiliated clinics in the United States, Europe and other locations, I want to make sure we are doing all we can to prepare students from an educational and well-being standpoint. After all, to take care of others, one has to take care of oneself.
It’s no secret that the veterinary profession, like many other vocations, has been challenged by high stress levels, which the pandemic has only aggravated. Vetlife, which provides health and financial support to the veterinary community, received nearly 4,000 helpline calls in 2020 — 10 times the number in 2014.
Meanwhile, stress levels have surged among university students during the pandemic. According to a 2020 nationwide survey conducted by student telehealth provider TimelyMD, 85% of students experienced increased stress or anxiety during the pandemic. The survey also found that nearly 50% of students wanted their school to offer more virtual mental health services focused on well-being as well as increased social and academic support. (Learn more at bit.ly/3pTBsvQ.)
What Veterinary Schools Can Do
Veterinary schools, in partnership with veterinary organizations, have long been advocates of wellness, and colleagues within these schools have spearheaded initiatives globally. One example is the Mind Matters Initiative, which was established in 2015 and is run by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons.
While the dialogue on health and wellness strengthens in veterinary schools and the profession, we need curricular and extracurricular programs that encourage the development of skills that veterinarians can carry into their careers. Some strategies include:
- Lunch and learns: Conduct informal gatherings featuring speakers who cover topics related to emotional intelligence and the soft skills necessary to operate an independent veterinary practice or work within a team.
- Mindfulness training: Offer a program that heightens student awareness of the importance of being present in the moment, increasing self-care and raising self-awareness, along with improving communication and conflict-resolution skills.
- Community involvement: Arrange and participate in volunteer activities that give back to the community. This activity is fulfilling for students, facilitates team-building and makes a difference in the lives of others, setting an example for future endeavors.
- Mentorships: Align students with local veterinarians to see and experience some of the challenges faced in day-to-day clinic operations and witness the best practices for handling them.
- Webinars: Schedule expert-led online sessions that focus on ways to ease mental burdens, such as meditation, exercise and positive thinking. Students will learn relaxation and coping methods.
- Student assistance programs: Implement an SAP to help students manage emotional and school-related stress, family tension, child and elder care, and more.
What Ross Vet Is Doing
At the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine, an Adtalem Global Education institution, an organizational wellness initiative was started before the pandemic and has gained traction over the years. The initiative is aligned with wellness programs advocated by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges. Some of the ways that veterinary schools have addressed student wellness include:
- Creating 24-hour hotlines.
- Providing certified mental health first-aid advocates.
- Offering well-being classes and committees.
- Providing courses that highlight the value of the human-animal bond in support of mental wellness.
At Ross Vet, we launched a program called Thrive, which emphasizes the significance of total health (mind and body) for veterinary students, faculty, staff and administrators. Our Student Wellness and Experience Committees coordinate activities that promote and improve mental health, wellness and unity. These include yoga, hikes, sound baths, virtual cooking classes and more. Additionally, the school’s counseling center offers an eight-week mindfulness stress-reduction course and sends virtual care packages to students.
We discovered that some approaches can be brief and still provide powerful touchpoints and messaging. For example, a lecture series features inspiring stories from faculty and staff on their experiences related to fears, doubts and struggles. The program is particularly important as the veterinary profession strives to support diversity and inclusivity within the student body. Wellness and striving for inclusivity in a diverse society are intertwined.
Another support factor is the valuable stress-reducing bond between people and animals. According to the Waltham Petcare Science Institute, research shows that human-animal interaction is linked to overall better health and stress management in people of all ages. To that end, Ross Vet students can interact with puppies and older dogs during stressful times, such as examination periods.
Students who receive emotional support and acquire appropriate mental wellness skills are better equipped to handle the challenges associated with the veterinary profession and thrive in their careers. Therefore, let us continue to expand the support of students and gather evidence of its value to help inform us on this journey. The steps we take today will have positive impacts for decades to come in the field of veterinary medicine.