I’d like to start with an analogy. To put it in perspective for all of us medical people, it’s like kidney disease. Rarely is it caused by ethylene glycol or grape ingestion, it’s caused by a gradual loss of function and concentrating ability so subtle you don’t realize it is even happening. The diagnosis is generally made only once there is failure and we can’t compensate anymore. When we are pissing on everything and drinking excessively. Yes that was a double entendre. The treatment is rarely dialysis or kidney transplant but hydration, proper diet, and supportive care.
The key to mental health is not a single event. Suicide is not a split second decision, it’s a mental sickness where someone feels like they are suffering and their quality of life is so poor that they don’t have a choice. It is generally preceded by an intermittently slow and rapid loss of quality of life. We don’t often pay attention until someone is failing, but what we really need is to pay attention to ourselves and each other when we are seemingly healthy and normal. In these times we can create reserves and the ability to compensate for stress and tragedy. With that said I’d like to share insights I’ve gained in order to help all of you have a better quality of life and better mental health in the veterinary profession.
Be yourself – Normal is something you want for your patients not your Facebook profile. You’ve been rewarded and punished throughout your life according to what other people thought or wanted but you’ll find that the most impactful rewards are when you are true to yourself.
Mentoring – This is one of the biggest complaints and stresses I see for new grads and I personally find that this sets the tone for your career. A mentor is a supportive role model who isn’t perfect but shares their insight and knowledge willingly. They show you the ropes and pick you up when you fall.
Communication – written, verbal, non-verbal. Write thorough records, talk to your clients, talk through your exam. Most important is talking with your coworkers and your support network. A study I just made up showed that those who talk are more likely to be heard.
Boundaries – these aren’t the walls that Trump wants to magically appear or the lack of them on private email servers. I’m talking personal boundaries like leaving work and shutting your phone off, about not answering emails or texts when you are at the movies, not answering a call from work when you are on vacation, and about not jeopardizing your license because a client insists you do something. If you don’t respect yourself and your time, others will follow your lead.
Imposter syndrome – I had the lowest admittance GPA in my class, it took me three applications to get into vet school, I was surrounded by friends and classmates that ace’d their tests and could spit out miller’s anatomy like their Starbucks order. It wasn’t an accident you got into and through vet school.
Compassion fatigue – Passion is in compassion. When you find yourself no longer passionate about what you do, you need to take a vacation, a stay cation, or consider taking a step back to see if your passion has changed.
Quality of life – for you. Make a list now of what makes you passionate. Start with things outside of our profession and then include in the profession. Use this to find your niche.
Your coworkers are your work family. Say hello, acknowledge them, thank them for what they do and reinforce how often they do something right. Everyone makes mistakes, all of us do, and we focus on them. I tell my behavior clients to reward their animals for doing what we want them to. You and your staff and colleagues likely do 99% good and helpful things but most of our conversations are about mistakes. Our support staff suffers many of the stresses we do and many of the successes we do. We are not an island and you will interact more with your staff than other vets so celebrate them, support them, acknowledge them and you will find your job significantly better, happier, and easier. Your clients will notice too.
Lack of perfection.You will make mistakes, you will kill something, you will even repeat mistakes, and you will piss off clients. These do not make you a bad vet, they make you human. They force you to learn and grow.
Self-care. Eat. Go to the bathroom, play the candy crush level. Despite how romantic and simple a urinary catheter and colostomy bag sounds, don’t do it. Go au natural and use the restroom. Sit down and take a load off. Take a shower everyday. No please, take a shower! Take your lunch break. Chew your food. Your jaw doesn’t dislocate. Be honest and don’t lie to others or yourself. Lies are like spicy food, what goes through your mouth today will burn your butt tomorrow.
Find a therapist, ideally someone who is familiar with veterinary medicine, if not at least those familiar with human medicine.
Know the warning signs – change in behavior, distancing themselves, more easily aggravated, lack of enthusiasm, not using vacation time, never sharing any details. Personally I worry more about those of us who seem normal and act normal. We are all individuals and unique. When suffering it is easier to try to suppress our problems and act normal. People don’t ask about normal, they don’t bother normal, they don’t notice normal. We don’t want attention for our problems, we want to be perceived as strong, as capable, as perfect. What better way to avoid problems and attention than by acting normal. It’s okay to have problems, I argue that it is normal to have problems, to need help. We are here to help.
Don’t be afraid to say suicide. Like the legendary tyrant who shall not be named. No not a politician, I mean Voldemort. Voldemort continued to lurk in the shadows creating more and more destruction until he could not be ignored, his influence was felt by all and then they talked about him and addressed his presence. Then they banned together, became a true community, and prevented his evil from taking hold. We are at a turning point in our profession where we are discussing suicide, we are studying it, and we are addressing it.
I want you to find one or more support groups that let you freely share your concerns and needs and that get it. For those who have graduated, feel free to Facebook message me and I would be happy to add you to Not One More Vet. For those of you who haven’t heard about the group it is a “secret” Facebook group with one goal and two rules. We share our triumphs and our loses. We share humor and dark sarcasm, we curse and we praise, we query and we discuss. We get passionate and most of all we support. 8,000 of us come together. Our goal is in our name and it’s about improving mental health in veterinary medicine. We are a community of colleagues who understand each other better than anyone else. Together we can support each other, together we can make a difference, and together we can solve this problem.
I’d like to thank Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital and my boss, for giving me the opportunities to develop my passions. Because of them I am able to provide a great internship that will provide great mentoring and set graduates up to be successful in GP and emergency medicine. I get the opportunity to teach externs and interns about vet med and about mental health. Because of them I have finally found a place that I will want to retire at.
I’d also like to thank my many colleagues who have supported me in my times of need and have provided me encouragement to share these thoughts. I’d like to close with a phrase I want you to all remember. You are not alone, we are ALLONE!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jason Sweitzer, DVM, RVT is an associate veterinarian at Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Thousand Oaks, CA. He does general practice and emergency medicine for small and exotics animals, as well as wildlife, with special interests in behavior medicine, management, and teaching. He balances his life with family, playing field hockey, and voluminous quantities of bad jokes and puns.