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How I (and you can) improve your mental health in vet school

INSTAGRAM @dogtor_katelyn   
Katelyn Lundquist is a first-year veterinary student at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. She studied Molecular Biology in college in Florida and looks forward to applying what she's learned in a practical setting as a future veterinarian. Like many vet students, Katelyn always loved animals and had a wide variety growing up. However, it wasn't until high school she decided to pursue vet med through shadowing and working in different settings. Now as a professional student, she is adjusting to the rigorous academics presented to me while trying my best to maintain a healthy well-being. Katelyn hasn't yet decided which area of vet med she would like to focus on specifically, but so far she is leaning toward research or small animal medicine.

Did you know veterinarians have one of the highest suicide rates amongst professionals. If you did, chances are it’s because you heard it from someone in the veterinary community; either a mentor, colleague, friend, or classmate.

Often, we hear stories of young veterinarians who are worked until they burn out, tales about the struggles of crippling debt that lasts for 20 years, or talk of how a cyberbully takes things too far leading a veterinarian to a bad place. While it is sad to hear about the horrible realities around us, it is also important to realize that the stresses and negative emotions often associated with vet med don’t arise suddenly. The journey to becoming a veterinary professional starts well before the letters “DVM” or “VMD” are attached to the end of your name. This is why good mental health in veterinary school is so important. 

For many students, being accepted into a veterinary school program is a turning point in their lives. However, the challenges ahead are not to be underestimated. Stress during veterinary school is beyond what one would experience in college, but that doesn’t mean a student needs to sacrifice their own well-being for success. The key to great performance is balance.

As a veterinary student myself, I can personally attest to vet school being one of the most stressful and busiest seasons of my life. A tough curriculum containing loads of detailed information coupled with trying to best manage my time between VBMA, exams, tutoring sessions, and hours of studying is not exactly a recipe for relaxation. (Did I mention that showers, eating, and sleeping are also important? Along with seeing the sunshine and interacting with peers?) However, the unexplainable happiness that comes from being internally pleased with my own well-being outweighs the numbers that seem to define success. Sure, an A grade on an exam or a 4.0 GPA is noteworthy, but if you’re driving yourself into the ground to reach that point, it’s not worth it anymore. Your mind and your body can only perform their best work if you treat them well.

Personal well-being is always something I have been passionate about, even before starting vet school. I knew it was something I couldn’t sacrifice if I wanted to perform my best academically and feel my best physically. Taking care of your mental health and well-being in vet school isn’t easy, but a routine and balanced lifestyle can absolutely help. With it, you develop better coping mechanisms for the stressors and negative emotions that inevitably come with earning a veterinary degree. Again, your mind and your body can only perform at their best if you treat them well. Learning how to better time-manage and prioritize your coursework now can also help to do the same as a practicing veterinarian. Practicing self-care and implementing rest days now can help defeat feelings of burnout as a new grad veterinarian. If you start developing good habits during vet school, they can absolutely help to produce a healthy well-being in the future.

How do you take care of your well-being? I love combining activities that contribute to my mental, physical, and emotional health. One of my “rules” for vet school is to always take the day off if you have an exam that day. If the exam is in the morning, I suggest going to bed early and having a slow morning before testing so your mind can be clear. If the exam is during the afternoon, I still suggest going to bed at a decent hour so you’re not sleepy, but I also suggest not cramming during the morning. Cramming causes a lot of stress and discomfort because you’re worried it’s not going to stick (and most of the time it doesn’t).

Another well-being favorite of mine is to take self-care nights after a long day. While you may still have loads of PowerPoints to review, your brain is not going to absorb any information if it’s sleep-deprived or overworked. Additionally, if you’ve had a rough or emotional day, your mind may need time to decompress. We’re all human so emotions are a natural part of our lives. Pent up emotions aren’t compatible with studying complicated topics like neurons or zoonotic diseases. A simple way to take care of your physical health is to make sure you move your body periodically, which helps to circulate your blood while studying. Taking a 15-minute stroll, going to the gym, or walking your dog are all good ideas! Recently, after a long and stressful two weeks of working double time on schoolwork to catch up, my brain was absolutely fried, and I was feeling cranky and unproductive despite all the work I accomplished. That weekend I was invited to spend some time with friends and I immediately declined because I was so worried that I would fall even more behind if I didn’t continue to work on the weekend. After some thinking and self-reflection, I finally decided to join my friends and take some time off from studying – without feeling guilty. A fun night of board games and pizza was just the kind of break I needed and gave my brain a chance to relax and think about something other than school.

Mental health in a challenging profession is no joke and should not be taken lightly. Suicide and depression are very real issues within the veterinary community, but they do not have to be part of our destiny. Learning how to take care of your well-being and how it affects your success during veterinary school can alter how you cope with stress as a professional starting with implementing good habits now. So, the next time you feel overwhelmed from the massive number of tasks on your to-do list, take a moment to check in with your well-being and make sure you’re caring for your mind and body. After all, your mind and your body can only perform their best work if you treat them well.

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