Context: Stress, anxiety, and depression affect medical student populations at rates disproportionate to those of general student populations. Emotional intelligence (EI) has been suggested as a protective factor in association with psychological distress.
Objectives: To explore the relationships between EI and stress, anxiety, and depression among a sample of US osteopathic medical students.
Methods: From February to March 2020, a convenience sample of medical students enrolled at an osteopathic medical school in the southeastern region of the United States were invited to complete a voluntary and anonymous 54-item online questionnaire that included sociodemographic items as well as validated and reliable scales assessing perceived stress, anxiety, depression, and EI. Univariate statistics were calculated to describe the participant characteristics and the study variables of interest. Pearson’s product-moment correlations were used to examine relationships between EI and study variables. Three multiple regression models were fitted to examine the relationship between EI and stress, anxiety, and depression, adjusting for sociodemographic factors exhibiting significant bivariate relationships with outcome variables. Dichotomous variables were created that were indicative of positive screens for potential depressive disorder or anxiety disorder. Independent-sample t-tests were used to determine the presence of a statistically significant difference in EI scores between positive screeners for depression and anxiety and their respective counterparts; an alpha level of 0.05 was set a priori to indicate statistical significance.
Results: In all, 268 medical students participated in this study, for a response rate of approximately 27%. Importantly, EI exhibited significant negative correlations with stress, anxiety, and depression (r=−0.384, p<0.001; r=−0.308, p<0.001; r=−0.286, p<0.001), respectively). Thus, high levels of stress, anxiety, and depression were observed in the sample. Significant relationships remained following covariate adjustment. Established cutoffs for anxiety and depression were used to classify positive and negative screens for these morbidities. Using these classifications, individuals screening positive for potential anxiety and depression exhibited significantly lower levels of EI than their counterparts showing subclinical symptoms (t=5.14, p<0.001 and t=3.58, p<0.001, respectively).
Conclusions: Our findings support the notion that higher levels of EI may potentially lead to increased well-being, limit psychological distress, improve patient care, and facilitate an ability to thrive in the medical field. We encourage continued study on the efficacy of EI training through intervention, measurement of EI in both academic and clinical settings as an indicator of those at risk for programmatic dropout or psychological distress, and consideration of EI training as an adjunct to the educational program curriculum.