“As someone who went through a period of depression, I was hit hard when I listened to the data on increased veterinary depression and suicide,” says Judson Smith, a third-year veterinary medicine student.
Smith learned a lot about mental health and wellness at the 2017 Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) Symposium, which he attended as a delegate. About one in 20 veterinarians are suffering from psychological distress, according to a 2017 study by Merck Animal Health and Brakke Consulting. Student debt, stress, and suicide are the three most critical issues facing the profession, and younger veterinarians are much more likely than older veterinarians to suffer severe psychological distress.
After SAVMA created a national wellness committee, several Illinois students (including Smith, and Class of 2019 members Rachel Friedman, Jeff Hess, and Jimmy Holtschlag) did the same within our college.
Smith decided to become a leader within the Student Wellness Committee to promote mental health awareness initiatives for veterinary medicine students.
The Student Wellness Committee was written into the SAVMA Illinois Chapter Constitution this summer, and Smith plans to increase the committee’s membership to include students from all classes. This year, the committee will co-host a Welcome Back BBQ open to everyone at the college, a booth at the Vet Med Open House on October 7, and an annual event called Vet Med United Day in early April.
Vet Med United Day is a day for veterinary students and clinicians to band together to spread awareness about depression and suicide. The main objective of the event is to show that veterinary students aren’t alone.
“Last year, we had three activities on Vet Med United Day. Students could write down their anxieties and share them with each other via ‘give a ribbon, take a ribbon,’” says Smith. “We had an amazing chat with Dr. Devon Hague from the neurology service where she told her story of resiliency. And we had a team-building exercise to help show students that they are not alone in their struggles.”
Smith also attended the national Veterinary Leadership Experience (VLE) in Idaho during the spring of 2017 where he learned tools to help with mental health, wellness, inclusion, and stress reduction.
“VLE taught me how to overcome my demons of a previous ‘failure’ that rocked my first career,” says Smith. “I felt I was able to bring that positive energy back from Idaho to help students by increasing their awareness in wellness and mental health in our profession.”
He was briefly part of the U.S. Army before receiving a medical discharge for a knee injury. After the military, he worked in the business sector for a few years before changing paths toward his veterinary education. Smith admits he never felt anxiety until he got to vet school.
At the most recent American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) convention in Denver, Colo., Smith was impressed with what the AVMA is doing to combat stress, anxiety, and depression. The convention had wellness and mental health booths and free professional counseling available on site.
Smith believes it is important to expose the stigma of stress, anxiety, and depression that often arises within the veterinary profession. Students often keep these pressures inside, believing they must hold themselves to unreasonably high standards. But Smith wants students to know that resources are available.
“We cannot lose any more veterinary colleagues or students to suicide,” says Smith. “Veterinary medicine is a family. We are a small profession of brilliant, passionate, and incredibly compassionate people. Not only is it okay to seek help, but it demonstrates strength to recognize that speaking to someone can change your life for the better.”
Smith highly recommends Kate Irwin, a licensed clinical social worker and the college’s counselor. “I tend to speak with Kate Irwin about twice a quarter, and she has drastically helped me through my veterinary school experience,” says Smith.
In addition to actively seeking counseling, Smith recommends taking some time for yourself, going for a walk, going to the gym, watching a movie, reading a book, getting enough sleep, or talking to a family member or a friend.
“My personal favorite advice is to hug your friends—either human, furry, or scaly,” says Smith. “If you see someone who is acting a little off, maybe not laughing as much as they normally do, approach them. Ask if they are okay. Say ‘hi’ to your classmates in the hallway, and smile. We are all in this together.”
—Da Yeon Eom
Resources Available to Veterinary Students
In the college:
Kate Irwin, Counselor
Phone: (217) 300-3045
Wellness webpage for students: vetmed.illinois.edu/wellness/
At the University of Illinois:
McKinley Health Center
Crisis line: 217-359-4141
Text line: CONNECT to 741741
Through AVMA and SAVMA:
Crisis line: 800-273-8255
Text line: HOME to 741741
Website with wellness and general information for students: myvetlife.avma.org