We veterinarians spend all of ourselves and more caring for our patients. But, have you ever heard the phrase "Who heals the healer?" It's primarily applied to nurses in human healthcare, but there's no difference in the stress, the empathy, and the pressures of the job between human nursing and veterinary care.
Nurses and doctors, vet techs and veterinarians; we all have our roles to play in keeping the people and animals around us healthy and happy, and we're all suffering under the combined stresses of difficult situations, unruly patients, angry caregivers, and so much more. It's no wonder that stress, burnout, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, and all manner of mental health challenges are commonplace with veterinarians.
You can only provide quality care for your patients if you're taking good enough care of yourself. Otherwise, stress, fatigue, and other concerns can lead to errors in judgment, missing details, and worse. The question is, how do you take care of yourself?
Vet mental health is a primary concern of ours, so we've put together this checklist of line items to help you maintain a positive outlook, make progress on the issues you face, and seek help should you need it. Make no mistake: addressing mental health is never easy, and we live in a society where stigmatization and other pressures make it difficult to seek out the help you need. Rest assured, though, that help is available. You don't have to face it all alone.
Note: While we're keenly interested in mental health for veterinarians, we're not ourselves mental health professionals. Furthermore, the world of mental health recognition and treatment is continually evolving. Always refer to trained therapists, psychologists, and other support for the current best practices and options for your specific situation.
Understand the Importance of Mental Health
The first item on the list is to understand the importance of good mental health. Whenever you suffer under the burden of a mental health disorder, whether it's short-term and caused by stress or long-term, recognition of the scale of the problem is critical.
Good mental health allows you to better adapt to stressful situations, cope with other people who are themselves stressed and angry, and think more clearly about the options available to you and your patients. You can provide better quality care, see better solutions to problems, and avoid the stresses and problems that crop up outside of your work life.
All too often, job stress becomes life stress, which becomes unhealthy coping mechanisms, other problems like constant fighting or anger issues, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and self-harming behaviors.
In the worst case, as with far too many veterinarians over the years, mental health struggles can lead to suicide.
Mental health attention is absolutely critical. You can't help anyone, human or animal, if you aren't in the right state of mind.
Assessing Your Mental Well-Being
The first step to fixing any problem is recognizing that there's a problem in the first place. With mental health, especially for empathic caregivers like veterinarians, this can be a real challenge. So many of us face stiff burdens and believe we're the ones who need to shoulder them. Often, that even means attempting to shoulder them alone, even when they're too much and too many to do so.
There are a lot of different ways to get an assessment of mental health. Sadly, many vets don't even think about it until they reach a crisis point, at which point it can be very difficult to seek help.
Some self-assessments you can take include:
You can also seek out professional help from a licensed therapist local to you or by using telemedicine. There's no shame in asking for a review, even if you feel healthy! Sometimes, it can be very difficult to realize just what state of mind you're really in.
The key to any assessment is honesty. Take your time, think about your situation and your responses, and recognize that you aren't putting up a mask or shield for a quiz. You may be afraid of what the answer holds, but knowing is half the battle.
Know, as well, that mental health isn't a simple one-dimensional metric. In fact, there are nine dimensions for well-being: occupational, intellectual, spiritual, social, emotional, physical, financial, creative, and environmental. Holes in any of these can lead to a dangerous imbalance.
Learn and Practice the Tenets of Self-Care
Care can come from within, and it can come from without. It can certainly be important to talk to a therapist or another mental health professional to help guide you in the right direction, but you'll have a difficult road ahead of you if you don't learn how to practice self-care.
Fortunately, self-care doesn't have to be difficult or involve dramatic, immediate lifestyle changes. Those, as many of us know, are nearly impossible to maintain, just like a crash diet. Self-care is more about building small habits and making small changes.
Get some exercise, even if it's something as small as a walk around the block each day.
Work to improve your sleep with regular sleep hours and good sleep hygiene.
Learn your limits and when you have to say "no" to additional burdens.
Focus on positivity and recognizing the positive in your life.
Shift your diet towards healthier foods and away from junk.
Identify your own stress triggers and work to minimize them.
Don't be afraid to relax and take some time for yourself.
There are a ton of different resources available to help you practice self-care, and there are hundreds of individual actions and small steps you can take on the journey. Browse through these resources, find steps you feel like you can take, and take them.
Remember, you aren't trying to make huge, immediate lifestyle changes; you're trying to make incremental but sustainable progress.
Build a Healthy Work/Life Balance
Another key aspect of mental health is a firm work/life balance. Bringing too much work home with you, working too much at the expense of your life, and letting work override your life are all symptoms of a poor work/life balance. And, again, the more stressed you are and the worse you're suffering, the more your patient care will suffer, and the more the whole situation can spiral.
Here are some tips to help build and focus on work/life balance.
Build a one-year calendar with major events, dates, and celebrations you want to attend, and make sure to make time for them.
Try to arrange a flexible work schedule so you aren't beholden to others' approval for time off for both mental and physical health days, vacations, and celebrations.
Learn your limits and how to say no when something or someone would exceed them.
Leave work at work; taking your work home with you, even if it's simple paperwork, means you aren't able to fully let down your guard and relax.
Track how you spend your time to look into where it's all going, what is most stressful, and what may be improved.
Build up trust and teamwork with your partners and employees. If you feel the need to review and correct everything they do or don't trust them to handle the work they're assigned, figure out why and address that.
Look for sources of unnecessary stress (like reading the news or scrolling Twitter) and cut them out.
If necessary, consider a change in career. While you may be truly passionate about animal care and veterinary work, if you burn yourself to a stub in doing it and risk your own life, it isn't worth it.
It's a long road to achieving a healthy work/life balance, and if you work for a corporate practice, it can be difficult to make the changes you need to make. Do your best, take it incrementally, and focus on yourself.
Don't Fall Victim to Compassion Fatigue
One of the greatest risks for caregivers, both of humans and of animals, is compassion fatigue. Also known as vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, or secondary victimization, compassion fatigue occurs when you take on the stress and concern for your patients.
As vets, we have to deal with many pet owners while they're in the lowest states of mind, when they're most stressed, worried, anxious, angry, and reactive. Many are faced with the difficult choice of struggling to afford care for their beloved pets and the other sacrifices they may have to make to afford it – or the sacrifice they have to make if they can't.
Further, as vets, empathy is often a strong talent of ours and a big part of why we went into animal care in the first place. We love animals, we want to see them happy and healthy, and we want to help them provide joy to their families for years to come.
That makes it all the harder when, every time an animal is suffering, and even more so when they're suffering under something we can't fix, it weighs on us. We worry, we struggle, and we do our best, but the reality is that it may not be enough. In many cases, nothing can be enough. Medical science is simply not advanced enough to prevent every illness.
Compassion fatigue occurs when these traumas and stresses build up, and we don't have a way to separate ourselves from them or deal with them in a healthy way. Symptoms include bottling up emotions, experiencing sadness or apathy, loss of joy in previously enjoyable activities, distractedness and difficulty concentrating, chronic fatigue or pain, nightmares, and more. Common symptoms for those in our profession.
As always, it's critical to recognize these symptoms and trace them to their source before you can learn how to address them. You can learn more here.
Work for Better Workplace Well-Being
Workplace well-being can come in many forms.
Many of the job-related stresses we experience as vets come from a few sources. Poor financial compensation, long hours and extreme workloads, a lack of support in the workplace, a lack of teamwork; anything that pushes an undue burden onto our shoulders is a source of poor workplace atmosphere.
Solving the issue after you recognize it can be difficult, depending on your situation. Vets who own their practices can take steps to make them more profitable without sacrificing patient care, hire more workers and assistants to relieve some of the burdens, or invest in more partnerships and consultants to lighten the load. For example, when you have to deal with tricky cases in oncology, neurology, dermatology, and other fields, you can contact us for a consultation and receive an expert opinion you might not be able to develop on your own.
It's far too common that vets feel like they have to carry the world on their shoulders, even when they don't have the training to support those specialties. Working with others, with specialists and consultants, can help ease the burden.
Know Where to Get Help
If you're feeling down, in an impending crisis, or in crisis, help is out there. All you need is to know how to reach it.
In a previous post, we discussed eight resources for vets facing mental health challenges. These range from support organizations to crisis care teams. You can read the full post and see the full list of support networks and agencies available here.
For more immediate help or crisis, you can reach out to the national mental health helpline by dialing 988 or reaching out via their live chat by texting the number instead. You can also visit https://988lifeline.org/ for live chat help. And, as always, if you ever have any questions, we would be more than happy to help out however we can.