It’s been the hardest year of my nearly 20-year professional career for so many reasons. The caseload has been unprecedented, much of which was with first-time pet parents. Clients have been impatient and often short-tempered. And we’ve gone from having our own health concerns as essential workers to national staffing shortages and skeleton crews at times.
The pandemic created an impossible personal situation where I began instantly balancing a full-time job in practice and virtually homeschooling three grade-school children. Our city had strict quarantines with long periods of social isolation. My father had a severe stroke where I was left with no ability to be in the hospital or talk easily with his medical team. And, most recently, my immediate family was faced with chronic illness. Life was not OK, and suddenly, neither was I.
First, let me say, I’m not seeking sympathy. I know so many others carry much more weight every day on their backs and in their hearts. I share my life struggles here because, while your lived experiences may look different, the emotions and mental health concerns might feel almost the same.
We gain strength in community; we find solace in relatability, and that’s what we all need right now. We need to not feel alone because so many in this profession still struggle in silence and in the shadows and with no support. Unfortunately, there is still a significant stigma around asking for help and, even more so, being open about mental health therapy. And that’s despite the fact that we, as medical professionals with education and training, constantly work to improve the physical and emotional health of our patients.
I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the need to prescribe an anti-anxiety medication or a pre-visit pharmaceutical to reduce fear and stress in my patients. I don’t bat an eye in that discussion with clients. So why do we often feel embarrassed, nervous and even ashamed if the tables were turned and placed us as that patient?
I wish I was writing this article with the solution for fixing everything, because that’s what we do. Healers fix things. But I can’t, and what’s even harder is admitting that, especially when it looks from the outside that you can, that you have everything together; that you’re tougher and braver than most.
What I can do, however, is encourage you to become the patient, even just for a day. Step outside of yourself and commit to a period of uninterrupted, selfish time to ask yourself the question, “Am I OK?” That sounds so simple and trite, but it’s a serious question that requires you to be vulnerable and self-aware. Honesty is imperative; that’s where bravery comes in.
I want all of my colleagues, even if you think this article doesn’t apply to you, to take an essential and important step towards self-care. Go to the website avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing/assess-your-wellbeing and openly and honestly take the 30-question Professional Quality of Life (ProQOL) Assessment.
This tool is frequently used and widely respected as a resource to “measure the negative and positive effects of helping others who are experiencing suffering and trauma.” It was developed originally by Beth Hudnall Stamm, PhD for use in human health care, but now is also applied to the veterinary profession. The goal is to help you understand where you stand in relation to three areas crucial to mental wellbeing: compassion satisfaction, compassion stress and compassion fatigue.
This may not be easy. The first step in anything is always the hardest. And the results of this assessment may be shocking, saddening, maddening or even scary to read. But we need to face this. We owe it to our families, our children, our colleagues, our friends, our clients, our patients and ourselves.
Just like in practice, we can’t treat without the right diagnostics, and while this assessment doesn’t give a specific diagnosis, it’s the screening tool to suggest diagnostics are necessary. Without acknowledgement, support and proper treatment, we end up with burnout.
Burnout is defined as a psychological syndrome that involves prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. It looks like emotional exhaustion, cynicism, personal inefficiency and ineffectiveness at work.
Does that sound like you? Does that sound like a colleague? Did you look away or exhale deeply or get a little queasy in your stomach? It’s hard to admit, isn’t it? Veterinarians are perfectionists. We don’t like to fail. So don’t.
It’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to say no. It’s OK to streamline your kids’ activities and not go to every single virtual birthday party and not answer every email within 10 minutes. It’s OK to be selfish here. Stop judging yourself and be brave and kind to yourself. You deserve it. +