Veterinary Hope Foundation: Healing crisis through community
At a time when about six in 10 veterinary professionals have sought help for their mental health, the topic of self-care is nothing new, but the statistics are often presented without actionable solutions. It might be comforting to know that “everyone in vet med” is going through it too—but it can also feed into ideas of pushing past the pain rather than reaching out for support.
“Is resilience really the answer?” is the question recently raised by Krista Martin, LISW-CP, LCSW, director of the nonprofit 503(C) Veterinary Hope Foundation (VHF). Despite the fact that veterinarians are incredibly resilient, Martin wrote in the organization’s September 2023 newsletter, “Perseverance is incomplete as a standalone coping skill. If we want to have healing and growth rather than just ‘knuckle down’ grit, we have to pair perseverance with healing.”
Meet the Veterinary Hope Foundation
Veterinary Hope Foundation (VHF) is a team of committed, caring professionals dedicated to providing resources and support to the veterinary community through online, interactive support groups. It was founded in 2020 by two veterinarians
Tennessee native Elizabeth Chosa, DVM, served on active duty in the US Army Veterinary Corps for five years, where she cared for working dogs, dolphins, and sea lions before being honorably discharged in 2010 and continuing on as an associate veterinarian, then practice owner, and now part-time relief veterinarian, full-time mom, and mentor through DVMoms.
VHF Co-founder Blair McConnel, VMD, MBA, worked in finance before completing veterinary school and then getting her MBA from the Wharton School of Business with the goal to “rethink the business side of veterinary medicine,” which led to her co-founding Spotlight Solutions, a consultation service that solves veterinary clinic problems related to business and growth.
After losing multiple colleagues in a short period of time to suicide, Chosa and McConnel looked at the landscape of resources available and saw a need for something different; they landed on the VHF model—personalized online support groups led by mental health professionals, where people of various job titles in vet med can find the kind of community that sticks.
AAHA’s past CEO tells his story
As a former practice owner, VHF board member and past AAHA CEO Michael Cavanaugh, DVM, DABVP (Canine/Feline), is intimately familiar with all sides of the profession, including the dark side. And he talked frankly to NEWStat about his work with the VHF, as well as his own experience with depression back when he was just starting out.
Perhaps the most important core concept behind VHF is early intervention. “They want to talk to people before they’re in crisis mode,” said Cavanaugh. “The goal is to help people set themselves up for success.” And his industry contacts have been invaluable in helping VHF find corporate sponsors such as Boehringer Ingelheim and Hills Pet Nutrition.
Cavanaugh said that one of the greatest benefits of going through the VHF program is that attendees often develop an ongoing support system that continues to benefit them after the program ends.
“People are continuing the relationships they developed in the groups,” Cavanaugh said. Many are in constant contact, with some contacting each other often multiple times in the day via text. “It’s exactly what I hoped would happen.”
That hunger for community speaks volumes about the common denominator among those who join the VHF groups: “They feel very alone,” said Cavanaugh, who knows exactly what they’re experiencing.
He felt a profound lack of support when building his own practice from the ground up in the late 1980s. Back then the concept of work/life balance was still pretty new, and Cavanaugh, who had a wife and children to support, had trouble achieving it.
Former AAHA CEO Michael Cavanaugh, DVM, DABVP (Canine/Feline), when he was a new practice owner
“As a practice owner, you’ve got a lot of responsibilities. And I was struggling. When things were going well at work, they weren’t going well at home. And vice versa,” he said. “I was having trouble finding the degree of happiness I thought I should have,” he recalls. “I couldn’t find that sweet spot, and I couldn’t understand why, because I had a lot of things going for me.”
Eventually, when Cavanaugh realized that he was likely suffering from depression, it was something of a shock: On the surface, he was living a blessed life, building a successful practice and raising a family. But he realized he’d reached some kind of watershed moment when he’d go home from work and all he could think about was “the one jerk I saw that day” instead of all the good clients he saw.
“That wasn’t good for my mental health,” he said. “I knew I had to make some changes.”
Cavanaugh and his young family circa 1987
Cavanaugh finally decided to seek help for his depression, but admits it was a tough decision to reach out. “That was 25 years ago,” he said. “The stigma around seeking help was a whole lot worse than it is now.” And he admits to worrying that if word got out that he was seeking treatment, it might harm his career.
Attitudes towards seeking therapy are much better today, but Cavanaugh says people still struggle with it, and it’s an ongoing issue at the VHF: “Our main challenge right now is getting people to raise their hand and ask for help.” One innovative idea the VHF came up with was to group attendees together by practice types.
VHF’s personalized approach
When you start with a VHF group, you are matched based on affinity and primary type of practice (equine, small animal, large animal, mixed, industry/other, etc.). The VHF also takes into account job roles and other factors (owner versus associate, ambulatory versus brick and mortar).
Additional demographics, such as year of graduation and time zone, are factored in to foster a feeling of connection among group members.
For example, upcoming support groups include:
- ACVIM Veterinary Specialists: Parents Support Group
- Veterinarians: Grief & Loss Support Group
- Veterinarians: LGBTQIA+ Support Group
- ACVIM Veterinary Specialists: Early Career Group
- ACVIM Veterinary Specialists: Late Career Group
Ultimately, it’s about finding others who relate to what you’re going through. “You’re in a group with people who understand the challenges you face,” Cavanaugh said.
Lifting the stigma of mental health treatment
Cavanaugh acknowledges that the stigma of seeking treatment for mental health isn’t totally gone today, but it’s become much more acceptable as word has gotten out about the prevalence of depression in the veterinary profession.
“I admire people who realize they need help and get it, rather than try and tough it out.” As someone who tried to tough it out, he knows how difficult that is. And it’s why he’s so committed to the work being done by the VHF.
Cavanaugh said that if he hadn't sought help, he'd likely be "a very unhappy divorced guy" today.
Cavanaugh is now on the Veterinary Hope Foundation board and is "living his best life"
VHF’s message of hope
In response to her own question of whether “resilience is really the answer,” Krista Martin concluded that the antidote to the perfectionism and imposter syndrome experienced by many in vet med is not to push harder, but to seek comfort in one another.
"Hope is out there. It shows up daily in connection and curiosity and joy. Hope lives in supportive colleagues and caring clients. It lives in laughter in the break room and letters of gratitude for the many years of care we provided for a family's animals. Hope lives in friends and co-workers who reach out to those who are hurting with compassion and empathy.”
It is VHF’s goal to expand and grow these moments of hope—for those already feeling challenged, but also for people simply seeking more meaning to their professional lives. Whoever you are in vet med, VHF wants you to find the support you need.
Veterinary Hope Foundation
Sign up for a VHF support group
Profile of Dr. Chosa from Florida VMA
Tony McReynolds is a temporarily petless freelance writer who lives near a dog park in Lafayette, Colorado. He dreams of one day owning a Newfie who isn't afraid of water (which the last one was, and seriously, how is that even possible?).
Cover photo credit: © VectorStory E+ via Getty Images Plus
Other photos courtesy of Mike Cavanaugh
Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.