Raising Awareness of Mental Health for Veterinarians, and How to Help

May has seen the international adoption of Mental Health Awareness month, something I am sorry to say I had never really given much thought to until my wife told me about the severe toll her profession can take on your mental health. As a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, she is acutely aware of the issue of mental health for veterinarians.

There are so many stressors in the lives of veterinarians, and finances are sadly one of them. Student debt, low salaries compared to other credentialed professions, an economy on the edge due to a global pandemic… these all contribute to a level of stress that is literally killing veterinarians.

Many veterinary professionals struggle to cope mentally and emotionally. Did you know that only 41% of veterinarians would recommend the profession to a friend or family? For veterinarians under 34, that number drops to a shockingly low 24%.

Sadly, these numbers did not surprise me. That’s why, influenced and inspired by my incredible wife, I have dedicated much of my work to serving the unique financial needs of those in the veterinary profession.

Bringing Mental Health Awareness into Focus

Most veterinarians, as you would imagine, go into the profession because they want to help animals. A client of mine has a 7-year-old daughter whose favorite show is “Vets Savings Pets.” It sows a seed in a child’s mind that I am sure many of you reading this will recognize from your own childhood.

Just like my client’s daughter, you too wanted to be a vet saving pets. And even if someone had told you about the mental and financial toll being a veterinarian would have on your life, you would still do it. That just goes to show you how amazing professionals in this field are.

My wife, Anna, has been a practicing veterinarian for two years, and is currently an emergency vet. It is a stressful role. Before we met I never knew about the mental toll the veterinary profession takes on those who practice.

Now that I know about the issue of mental health for veterinarians, there is no turning back. Once I had started to turn the pages on this tragic story, I knew it was one I wouldn’t be able to stop telling until I had done everything I possibly could to help rewrite the narrative.

As such, I wanted to put together this post to help highlight some useful resources, and ways you can help either yourself or a loved one.

The Silent Struggles of a Veterinarian

You may be horrified to learn that 1 in 6 veterinarians considers suicide, struggling to cope under immense financial stress and overwhelming feelings of not being good enough. Thankfully support pages like Not One More Vet are helping to make important conversations about mental health for veterinarians more commonplace. I know it has certainly become a regular topic for us.

Travis Hornsby, founder of Student Loan Planner, recently conducted a survey to see how the economic effects brought on by COVID-19 have affected the mental health of his readers. What was striking to me was that out of all the professions surveyed (including MDs, DDSs, JDs), DVMs were more likely to contemplate suicide over their student loan burden. Travis recommended that Dean’s at Veterinary Colleges start taking this seriously. I wholeheartedly agree.

Some of you may have seen Dr. Melanie Bowden’s Tedx talk titled, “What Being a Veterinarian Really Takes.” If you have not, I highly recommend you set aside 20 minutes to watch it. My wife instantly saw her life reflected through this conversation.

How to Help Ease the Mental Burden of a Veterinarian

All of us who are attached to the profession of veterinary medicine know that mental health for veterinarians is a problem. But what can we do about it? Patricia Harteneck, Ph.D., MBA, a psychologist in New York City, wrote an article on ways to keep mentally well. Her advice inspired the core of this post.

Here are some of the ways you can improve your mental health or that of a friend or loved one:

#1: Tell Yourself Something Positive

I’m not going to lie… growing up with the name Ashley was not easy. I love my name now, but that was not the case in elementary school. I remember coming home in tears because of the relentless teasing I suffered.

I will never forget my mother, after comforting me one day during 3rd grade, telling me not to care what other people think. Every morning that year she would wake me up, and ask me to say something positive about myself before getting ready for school. I was still teased for my name, but I began everyday with a new attitude than I had before. That made all the difference.

Ask yourself these questions: When did I start to learn that there was something wrong with me, or that I wasn’t enough? Who would I be without this limiting belief?

Try to view yourself through a lens of understanding and compassion. Take a moment out of each day, even if for just a few seconds, to find something positive to say to yourself. Or something to be grateful for. Even if it’s just the delicious taco truck that parks outside of your clinic once a week. It’s a start. It’s a seed sown. And we all know how powerful they can be.

#2: Try Meditating

Did you know that meditation has been proven to reduce stress, increase your happiness and a sense of well-being? Studies show that we can literally change the wiring of our brains through mindfulness. Even just spending five minutes a day quietly focusing on our breath can make a big difference to our mental health.

Learning to become more aware of our emotions and stresses allows us to be kinder to ourselves in difficult moments. When we feel stressed, if we’ve made a mistake, or we feel that we are not enough, these are opportunities to work on self-compassion.

I’ve wanted to meditate for a while now. If you have too, or you do meditate but are looking for some useful guidance and tools that are specifically tailored to the needs and stresses of veterinarians, then I’m really excited to be able to offer you a FREE online meditation class.

I’m collaborating with Ceri Bethan, a mindfulness and meditation facilitator with a focus on mental health and worthiness. She will be offering my readers and clients an online session that outlines tools and tips for managing stress, plus a guided meditation – all carefully honed to be as beneficial to veterinarians as possible.

The date and time are still to be confirmed, but if you’re interested in learning more and booking your free spot in the class, drop me an email via the form on my site, or directly at ashley@nxtgenfp.com.

#3: Exercise

The body releases powerful stress-relieving and mood-boosting endorphins before, during, and after exercise. Exercise has not only helped me keep my body in shape, but my mind as well. It has literally saved my life during some of the hardest moments in my life.

Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, stress, and so much more. And you don’t have to be hitting the gym on the daily to reap the benefits, either. Even a simple walk connecting with nature can help to recalibrate your mind and bring some much needed calm to your life after a chaotic day at work.

Research in a growing scientific field called ecotherapy has shown a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. According to a Harvard Medical School, interacting with natural spaces can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response.

#4: Open Up to Someone

It is not always easy to let people know when you’re struggling. The veneer we put on social media and in front of strangers typically hides our feelings from others. We are conditioned to not be seen as weak. This is ESPECIALLY true for men. I know I certainly struggle with this, and my wife has to remind me to talk about my feelings.

I’m lucky – I have an amazing wife who is always there to listen, as I am for her. Her work is stressful, and she often brings that stress home. When she does, we try to talk it out as much as we can until she feels she’s made as much peace with things as she can.

I understand that not everyone has a partner to talk to about their feelings. Before I met my wife, I lost a very close friend who I had known since grade school. One day I got a phone call to say he was dying, and needed to get his financial affairs in order for his wife and newborn son. It rocked me to my core.

Tragically he passed away aged 31 from cancer. I had flown to see him one last time but arrived just 5 minutes too late. He was gone. My parents did the best they could to listen. But it was not enough. Other things in my life were adding up to contribute to my stress. I needed help.

I decided to seek out a professional counselor. And that made all the difference. After several months of counseling, I came to terms with my friend’s death. It helped me to get in a better place. I recommend seeking the advice of a professional if you need help and don’t feel that a friend or relative is the right person for you to talk to.

#5: Take a Break

Sometimes it can be difficult to unplug. As a business owner, I feel I have to be switched on 24/7. Whether it is counseling current clients, or looking to grow to my firm, there never seems to be enough time in the day to tackle all the challenges that face me as a business owner.

Anna constantly feels the same way. She is always wondering how she could have handled this situation differently in her practice, or if the pet she sent home a week ago is doing well. She mainly replays instances where she feels she could have handled a stressful situation with a pet owner better.

We always make a point to unplug by taking a vacation when we feel stressed. But the pandemic caused by COVID-19 has taken away the one thing we relied on to unplug together. So instead of traveling, we take some time each week to envision what our next vacation is going to look like.

Where can we travel to and get an AirBnB in a remote location with good WiFi so that we can work remotely? We created a travel fund specifically for this goal. That fund has been growing. We plan on unplugging for two weeks in a remote but beautiful location somewhere in the US as soon as we can.

Setting a goal and working towards that goal has helped us get through the tough times of the pandemic. Knowing that soon, we will be able to take a break and recharge has helped us keep our mental health intact.

I also recently deleted Facebook off my phone (ok, ok, my wife deleted it for me!). I was constantly checking it and feeling like life was out of control. I still check Facebook, but now it is only once a day.

All the politics of the quarantine are still raging on social media. But because the temptation to constantly check Facebook has been deleted from my phone, I have noticed an improvement in my mental health. We have so much to worry about personally, sometimes, just taking a break from social media can do wonders.

#6: Start Today

Oh boy, this is a hard one. If you are like me, your middle name begins with a P and ends with rocrastination. Seriously, when it comes to things not involving my business, I tend to put them off.

This was a constant source of stress between Anna and I during the early stages of our relationship. She is a don’t wait till tomorrow type of personality, I am more of a it can wait till tomorrow type of personality. But as we grew in our relationship, I noticed how important it was to her to get things done today.

Then I started to realize how important it was for ME to get things done today. I still fallback on my old habits, but I now realize the impact that putting things off till tomorrow that can be done today, can have on my life. Starting a task and finishing it in a timely manner can have huge benefits for our mental health. Why wait for a crisis to happen, when we can take action to mitigate that crisis TODAY.

Helping to Rewrite the Narrative on Mental Health

It hurts to consider the issue of mental health for veterinarians, and think that another story on Not One More Vet could easily be about one of my clients, their colleagues, or even my wife. According to global accounting and consulting firm PwC, in 2019 59% of employees listed financial challenges are their top stressor.

Having a written financial plan can help bring clarity to your finances. And having a trusted financial partner to discuss your financial stressors with can help you focus on the challenges you face in the clinic, rather than bringing your financial stressors into the clinic.

Please, do not hesitate to schedule a free introductory call if you have a financial question or challenge you need guidance on. I provide a safe and confidential space to discuss your finances free from judgement. You are not alone.

And if you are a Vetrinarian facing crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention’s Crisis Hotline Team on 1-800-273-8255. Do not become a statistic. Your life has meaning and value to many.

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