South College’s Knoxville PA Program Looks at Students’ Mental Health  

This month, our EDI team connected with faculty and students at South College’s Knoxville Physician Assistant Studies program who came together to investigate the prevalence of anxiety and depression among PA students. Rachel Enigk, PA-C, DEI chair, and Sarah Bachor, MMS, MPH, PA-C, director of didactic education, described how they see evidence of this problem every day, so they worked with students Erin Davis, PA-S, Mackenzie Kauffman, PA-S, Kelsey Welborn, PA-S, and faculty member Paul Miller, PhD, to explore the mental health of students.

As detailed in their research article in The Journal of PA Education, “Stressed and Depressed: Prevalence of Anxiety and/or Depression in Physician Assistant Students,” they sought to learn if the “stress of a rigorous PA graduate program could have a negative mental impact on students” and how the rates of anxiety and depression among PA students compares to the general population. 

Through their survey of 1,210 participants across the country, the team found that the data indicated “the presence of anxiety in 84.4 percent (1,007) of PA students compared with 19.1 percent of U.S. adults” and “80.9 percent (965) of participants present with depression, compared with 8.4 percent of the general population.”

This data falls in line with previous research that shows increased rates of anxiety and depression in students pursuing higher education. However, this is the first time that PA students have been the sole focus.

Troublingly, “46.7 percent of participants, nearly half, indicated they believed they needed professional help or treatment for anxiety or depression but chose not to get it.” Reasons for this hesitancy to access treatment are unclear however culprits could be a fear of judgement or retaliation, limited availability of therapy appointments, prohibitive cost of treatment, or a lack of time to seek care.

This article emphasizes that while “it is not advised that PA programs directly provide their students with medical advice, it would be appropriate for them to equip their students with mental health resources.”

At South College’s Knoxville PA program, Enigk and Bachor see an opportunity to cultivate a culture where students do not feel ashamed about feelings of anxiety or depression and thus are more willing to seek help when they need it. Available resources for students include free counseling services via phone or chat through ComPsych, a mental health toolkit with local mental health resources, student discounted tools such as Headspace, self-care tips on their weekly academic calendars, and anonymous opportunities for feedback on general student needs.

Incoming students are assigned two mentors who help foster belonging: a designated faculty member and an upper classmate. South also partners with Medicine in Motion, an organization designed to prevent burnout in students and clinicians via physical activity.

To ensure that their students are aware of their options, interventions are planned throughout their time at the program. During orientation, mental health resources are made available and discussed. In the second quarter, the signs of burnout and strategies to combat it are reviewed. In the fourth quarter when mental health is taught, appropriate and updated language is used to de-stigmatize mental illness.

Enigk and Bachor advise PA program staff members to listen to their students’ concerns and needs, as they will give you the framework for where to start addressing the mental health needs at the program.

To learn more about the details of this study, please check out Stressed and Depressed: Prevalence of Anxiety and/or Depression in Physician Assistant Students in JPAE.