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Chapter 1

Why Veterinary Caregivers May Be Predisposed to the Challenge of Finding Joy and Fulfillment in Our Profession

Michele Gaspar, DVM, DABVP (Feline Practice), MA, LPC

SHORT-CIRCUITING THE HARDWIRING OF VETERINARY TEAM MEMBERS

Much attention has been given to the apparent increased risk for mental health issues among veterinarians and support staff. A recent report by Nett et al.1 found U.S. veterinarians at greater risk for mental illness, suicidal thoughts, and depressive episodes than the general population. Statistically, females are at greater risk than males for depression and suicidal thoughts, so the increased reporting of these occurrences among veterinarians may be a reflection of the larger number of women now in the profession.

Also, there is additional interest in whether veterinarians have suffered more early traumatic events than other groups and how this might impact mental health. These “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) include highly dysfunctional, chaotic families; abuse (verbal, emotional, physical, and sexual); and insecure attachment patterns with early caregivers. Increasingly, researchers are considering whether veterinarians as a group are “hardwired” differently from those in other health care professions. If so, mental health issues in veterinarians may be the result of a vulnerable individual in a provocative environment.

PERFECTIONISM SPARKS FAILURE

One of the more common “hardwired” characteristics with which many veterinary team members regularly self-identify is perfectionism. To be clear, perfectionism is not the feeling that one should always strive to do their best under given circumstances; rather, it is the relentless and irrational belief that anything less than a perfect outcome is a personal defeat and failure. Perfectionism is considered an “early maladaptive schema,” an unhelpful thought pattern established in childhood through interactions with key adults. While perfectionism has some perceived benefits, such as assisting academic achievement, the ever-operating internal critic of the perfectionist relentlessly pushes for a level of achievement not possible in our imperfect world. Especially in veterinary medicine, where the clinician’s desire to help is often thwarted by the realities of client finances or ability to pursue diagnostics and treatments, unchecked perfectionism is particularly malevolent and emotionally damaging.

THE 3 S’s OF REWIRING VETERINARY TEAMS

Despite perfectionism pervading our profession, there are several ways veterinary teams can work toward improving their mental health:

  1. Self-compassion, the ability to treat ourselves in times of distress as a good friend would, is key to ameliorating perfectionism. This nonshaming stance, which realizes that one can only do what time and resources permit, needs to be not only modeled early in professional education but included in the day-to-day operations of our veterinary hospitals as well. While it might seem that self-compassion leads to complacency and decreased standards, research shows otherwise. With a self--compassionate stance, high standards are maintained; intrinsic motivation is increased; there is less fear of failure, so one persists in a given effort; and there is more personal responsibility for previous mistakes. Self-compassion is key to building the personal resilience and emotional wellbeing necessary for sustainable professional and personal satisfaction.
  2. Self-care can make a real difference in day-to-day resilience. Practical lifestyle changes like incorporating mindfulness and gratitude, practicing yoga, and improving sleep hygiene are remarkably effective. Additional information on these topics is available in this booklet.
  3. Support: There are times when self-compassion and self-care aren’t enough. We need to be open and willing to receive additional help. Supporting and destigmatizing the pursuit of enhanced mental health through psychotherapy and psychiatric care for veterinarians is critically important. It should be clear to all that no one can or should “white knuckle” emotional illness in isolation and that seeking help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Hopefully, understanding these predispositions will give caregivers permission to prioritize self-compassion, self-care, and seeking support to help improve their mental health and wellbeing.

HOW TO GET STARTED

  • Explore the “Center for Mindful Self-Compassion” website (www.self-compassion.org) created by Dr. Kristin Neff, an internationally recognized researcher on the practice and benefits of self-compassion.
  • Watch the TEDx video “The Space Between Self-Esteem and Self-Compassion” at a staff meeting.
  • Follow the Guided Meditations on Self-Compassion.
  • Watch “Why Mindfulness Matters in Health Care Professions” by Ronald Epstein, MD, and share with your team.
  • Read Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness, and Humanity by Ronald Epstein, MD.

REFERENCE

  • Nett et al. Notes from the Field: Prevalence of Risk Factors for Suicide Among Veterinarians—United States, CDC. 2014. MMWR 2015;64(5): 131–132.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Michele Gaspar cares for pets and people as a practicing board-certified feline specialist and psychotherapist. She serves as a consultant in feline internal medicine for the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) and is a member of Vets4Vets, a service of the VIN Foundation that helps veterinary students and veterinarians with professional and personal issues.

Take-Home Message: Veterinary professionals may be more predisposed to mental health challenges than the general population. By recognizing this potential predisposition, practice team members can take specific, positive actions to help improve their mental health and wellbeing.

AAHA’s Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing
The Link Between Healthy Workplace Culture and Optimal Personal Wellbeing
  • Download PDF of Roundtable Discussion

Want to share with the entire team?

Pick up free copies of AAHA's Guide to Veterinary Practice Team Wellbeing and the roundtable discussion, The Link Between a Health Workplace Culture and Optimal Personal Wellbeing at these locations:

  • AAHA@VMX ( Rosen Centre Hotel)
  • Health & Wellbeing Center ( VMX Expo Hall)
  • AAHA booth ( VMX Expo Hall)
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