Groundbreaking Survey Explores Mental Health Wellness among Future DOs
(Washington, DC)—Physicians are taught to help others. But when the stress of training to become a doctor becomes overwhelming, the resulting mental health problems can derail a medical career, or even lead to suicide. Now a group of osteopathic medical students is stepping up to address this issue in their own ranks.
While existing research looks at mental health issues for MD students or medical students in general, little to none has focused on the mental health status of osteopathic students in particular. DO students themselves are now working to fill that gap.
Members of the Mental Health Awareness Task Force (MHATF), a project of the Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents (COSGP), recently distributed a nationwide survey among the more than 26,000 DO students at the nation’s 33 colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs). With more than 10,000 responses collected, the survey is the biggest of its kind ever conducted. With it, task force members want to:
- Take a “snapshot” of the current psychological state of the DO student body
- Find out to what extent stigma about mental illness prevents troubled students from seeking help
- Provide data to help individual COMs be more responsive to the issue
The results were presented at this month’s conference of the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), and will later be published in an academic journal. College-specific reports have been provided to the deans of each of the COMs.
The MHATF was the brainchild of Maureen McAteer, a student at Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine (MU-COM) in Indiana. McAteer says she was inspired to pursue the issue after a friend, an MD student in residency, committed suicide.
“He had this really deep desire to help students with wellness, and it turns out he was struggling with his own mental illness the whole time, and it was completely silent—a lot of people didn’t know he was suffering,” she said. “And then he succumbed to suicide as a result. This hit me hard. I realized, we need to do something about this.”
The baseline survey was spearheaded by Dan Krajcik, a student at Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM) who is pursuing a combined DO/MBA degree.
“The survey is getting a snapshot of what the DO student mental health picture looks like,” Krajcik said. “We’re screening for depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, and coping behaviors. There are also questions on stigma—a huge part of this is stigma. We also ask about people’s perceptions of mental health resources at each of their schools.”
The survey was sent to each of the nation’s COMs by presidents of their respective Student Government Associations (SGAs). In constructing the survey, Krajcik worked closely with Faculty Advisor to the Ohio University IRB approved study (“Mental Health and Osteopathic Medical Students,” IRB #15E397) Liz Beverly, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Family Medicine and researcher at OU-HCOM. Statistical analysis of the results was done by Dr. Beverly and Sebastian Diaz, PhD, a Heritage College Associate Professor of Family Medicine who serves as lead researcher for the Central Appalachian Consortium of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine. Dr. Beverly says she often hears from students dealing with severe emotional problems, who are hesitant to seek help because of perceived stigma.
“I personally believe that students right now are dealing with a lot of barriers and stressors that physicians 10, 20, 30 years ago did not have to deal with while they were in medical school,” Dr. Beverly said. “Being in a medical school and teaching students, it’s impossible to not notice that some of these students are struggling.”
Dr. Beverly said she’s eager to see if the survey shows any significant differences between DO and MD students, and wants to follow up the short-term survey with research that follows students through their career.
“No one has ever thought of doing a longitudinal study, with students from medical school through residency to school to practice,” she said. “So my goal is to do that large cohort study.”
The Council of Osteopathic Student Government Presidents (COSGP) is an official council of the American Association of College of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM). The Council was established in 1972 and was originally known as the Council of Student Presidents.
COSGP serves as the official national representative voting voice of all osteopathic medical students. Its members work to maintain communication, disseminate information, foster student leadership, and provide a mechanism for the exchange of ideas between students of different colleges of osteopathic medicine.