It can be tough to pinpoint any good news coming out of this pandemic, but one positive thing we've noticed is that discussions about mental health and wellbeing have come to the forefront. While the stigma surrounding mental health issues isn’t gone, per se, there has been some forward movement on making the topic much less taboo. And that couldn’t be any more crucial than right now when so many people are in need of support.
Even before the pandemic, the struggle to stay emotionally healthy in the veterinary field was a massive challenge. The numbers are staggering: a study by Auburn University found that female veterinarians were 2.4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population – and the rate for male veterinary techs was 5 times higher.
The Not One More Vet organization says this of the veterinarian and vet tech mentality:
“‘Not good enough.’ It’s the mantra of so many veterinary teams. The words that flash through your mind after you are unable to save an animal. And whether the problem was medical, financial, or something else… the message is the same: I’ve failed. And when you carry this weight, the other stressors of working in a veterinary practice can feel unbearable. The bright, impassioned idealism to be the protector and savior of animals turns to ash, and depression begins to take over your life.”
This year, GeniusVets had the opportunity to interview many veterinary industry professionals about the future of independent veterinary practices. One of the things GeniusVets Co-Founder David Hall asked up front was how these professionals were protecting their mental health over the past year – and their replies were incredibly enlightening. While relaxation and meditation efforts were inevitably part of the whole picture, how each person guarded their emotional health was unique to them. However, some themes emerged, and we've explored those below. We hope that anyone struggling with stress or emotional issues at this time will find something they can use to make a positive change.
1. Remember the Garbage In, Garbage Out Theory of Media
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that being bombarded by depressing images and videos on TV and online has a distinctly negative impact on our psyches. Constantly exposing yourself to negative inputs leads to negative outputs and mindset – or as they say, "garbage in, garbage out." At some point, you have to turn it all off and take social media cleanses to protect your mental health. A couple of our webinar interviewees talked about going a step further and being proactive about honing your intake to focus on positive content – which is actually possible!
Owner of 2 Manage Vets Consulting Debbie Boone talked about figuring out how to manipulate her Facebook feed to what she wanted to see during this past election. Because she didn’t want political stories filling up her feed, she reported anything of that vein to Facebook. Once she started doing that, the algorithms did their thing, avoiding “feeding” her anything political. As Debbie said of the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” philosophy:
“If we spend all our time on social media, listening to the news, listening to negativity, our brain doesn't know the truth from a lie. It only knows what we feed it. And we've got to feed it the right thing. So, feed it good stuff. Just as you would feed your body a healthy diet, feed your brain a healthy diet of positive affirmations, gratitude, looking past the news line, and breaking news, which is a total crock. When I was young, Walter Cronkite was a reporter. And when we had breaking news, it meant the president got out of assassination, or we landed on the moon. That's breaking news. The rest of this stuff is just news. It's just not even really news; it’s just a bunch of garbage. But we've become very sensationalized in our society, and I think we need to push back and mentally say, ‘I'm not buying into this. You're not going to play me.’”
President and CEO of The Veterinary Cooperative Ginni Hamele also talked about the need to control media intake, saying:
“I still get plenty of news other places, but it's not so polarizing. And I feel like I'm a little bit insulated from some of the inflammatory rhetoric. The media knows that if it bleeds, it reads, and they grab ahold of things and try to sensationalize to create buzz and noise, and it's not always the real story. And so it's learning how to navigate through that and to pick your sources and control the controllable.”
2. Exercise the Mind As Well As the Body
Research has shown time and time again that exercise isn’t just great for your physical health but also has many mental health benefits. How many times have you heard the advice that, if you’re having a rough encounter at work or dealing with a lot of stress, you should pop outside to take a walk? And it works, almost without fail. It’s not surprising that many of our webinar guests this season have discussed their exercise regimens as being part of the ways that they’ve protected their mental health.
Owner of The Drake Center, a 40-employee veterinary practice in Encinitas, CA, and Co-Founder of GeniusVets Dr. Michele Drake is an avid mountain biker. Rain or shine, you can catch Dr. Drake conquering her local terrain. As Dr. Drake said of her riding:
“I'm lucky to live in California, but I'm on my bike pretty much every day, ripping up some cardio about 45 minutes to an hour. That really helps to even out all the crazies, and that kind of thing usually keeps my energy level up. I have a lot of energy, and those things just really contribute to that.”
Owner of Lucca Veterinary Data Security Clint Latham J.D. is a mountain biker as well, but he also loves to start his day with some backcountry skiing:
“I get up at like 4:30, and I'll climb to the top of the ski resort, have some coffee, changeover, and ski down. And so what that hour and a half or something first thing in the morning do to my mind and my overall wellbeing, I wouldn't change that for the world.
And I think there's also a lot of science to back up the fact that when they compared exercise to placebos like they gave people a drug saying, ‘Hey, this is going to make you feel better,’ exercise always won out over and over again.”
The National Center For Biotechnology Information (NCBI) has found that “Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal.”
And while Dr. Drake and Clint Latham are obviously on the more extreme side of sports, many experts have noted the health benefits of simply getting out for a walk, particularly in the cold.
3. Embrace the Familiar
One thing many of us have talked about since the pandemic began is the solace that can be taken in embracing the familiar, such as binge-watching shows that we’ve seen many times before. There is something comforting about doing so when the future seems uncertain. Chairman and CEO of Terravet Real Estate Solutions Daniel Eisenstadt did this very thing:
“The other thing I will confess to is as the world seemed grim, my binge pleasure on Netflix is watching the entire seven seasons of West Wing for the third or fourth time, and so that's like a romantic vision of a world that could be that isn't…”
This makes sense when you consider that routines can be a source of comfort.
As Northwestern Medicine has found, routines help with the following:
- Improves stress levels
- Helps with sleep quality
- Improves overall health
4. Take Time for Yourself and Your Family
We know this is easier said than done, especially in the veterinary industry. While other professions virtually shut down, the veterinary industry only seemed to pick up speed during the pandemic. Client volumes increased dramatically, and DVMs and their staff had to work to figure out how to serve clients without getting sick themselves, all while handling the clunkiness of curbside service. As veterinary consultant and nationwide industry speaker Dr. Joy Fuhrman said on our webinar:
“I think COVID has been particularly stressful for people in the veterinary industry because we're dealing with a business that has been an essential service. So while everyone else has been in lockdown, we've continued to operate and in the face of having to deal with the outside pressures of COVID. We've had to take on curbside service, which has not been well received by clients in many cases. Adding to the political climate with some people not wanting to wear masks despite the business requiring people to wear masks. To boot, much of the staff has been out sick and on quarantine for COVID, and this places extraordinary pressure on the remaining staff within the practice.”
While the tendency might be to become a workaholic during this time, it’s more important than ever to protect your well-being by taking time for yourself away from work. As Dr. Fuhrman noted, “I think really honoring myself and protecting my time away from the practice has been crucial to maintaining my mental health.”
5. Practice Mindfulness and Meditation
In the past, some have dismissed mindfulness and meditation as “new agey” fringe practices. But as time goes on, more people have embraced this movement, and the science has caught up – we now know there are many benefits, even for those initially reluctant to try these practices. And it’s certainly no wonder that meditation apps like Calm and Headspace have skyrocketed in popularity over the past year. There are many benefits to practicing meditation, from increased focus and better sleep to more self-awareness and decreased anxiety.
Mindfulness is a bit more abstract and probably not quite as well understood as meditation. Psychology Today defines it as “a state of active, open attention to the present. This state is described as observing one’s thoughts and feelings without judging them as good or bad.”
Clint Latham talked about the misunderstanding that many people have when it comes to mindfulness and how practicing it has helped him to protect his mental health as of late:
“Many times, people will get confused and think your mind just goes blank and you have this spiritual experience. But mindfulness is just being present with yourself, understanding your shortcomings. When I start to get in those spaces where I start to doubt myself in this practice, I really sit with that, and I understand every aspect of what that feels like. And so that when it arises when I'm conscious in the day-to-day world, as soon as I start to notice those feelings and sensations, I can then recognize them, label them, and then tell myself to change.”
As marketing professionals in the veterinary field with a DMV as part of our leadership team, we hear first-hand what it's like to be a veterinarian or vet tech these days. We've seen firsthand how rewarding this field can be, but we’ve also heard many stories about how emotionally draining it can be. Becoming truly aware of the toll this job can take takes is the first step toward finding solutions – and getting veterinary professionals the help they need before it’s too late. We are so appreciative of our webinar guests and their insights on ways that they have been able to protect their own mental health over the past year, and we hope that this will perhaps help others in the field as well.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call the suicide hotline at 800-273-8255.