General News

Mental Health Initiatives Assure Veterinarians: ‘You’re Not Alone’

[students giving high fives]

Facebook Page Offers Hope

“It’s really hard for vets to put ourselves first. Even for people who don’t experience mental illness.”

[Rosie with Veterinarian's Oath]
Rosie, a member of the Class of 2021, poses with a copy of the Veterinarian’s Oath.
This realization motivated Rosie M., currently a fourth-year student at the College of Veterinary Medicine, to create a private Facebook group to provide resources for veterinarians to fit self-care into their daily lives, to recognize mental illnesses early on, and, of course, to share memes.

The intelligent, the brave, the hard-working, the passionate, and the selfless are attracted to the field of veterinary medicine. Too often, these professionals put their own well-being on the back burner and, as a result, get burnt out by their constant work.

The Veterinary Mental Health Awareness page, started in May 2019, is meant to help veterinarians establish a mental wellness routine and balance their veterinary career with their personal life so they have the resiliency to continue taking good care of their patients.

Vet School ‘Amplifies Everything’

Rosie has been dealing with mental illness her whole life. But when she entered veterinary school, she realized many of her classmates were experiencing these issues for the first time.

“[Being in vet school] really amplifies everything. It really tests you. You spend a lot of time alone, studying with your thoughts,” says Rosie. These students felt alone and didn’t know what to do.

[Facebook group graphic]
Rosie created this graphic for the Mental Health Awareness Facebook page.
The Facebook page provides a forum for veterinary students to talk to each other and realize that many are experiencing the same struggles.

Interacting Virtually

The page originated for students, but Rosie was more than happy to welcome veterinary professionals once the word spread. Now more than 700 members strong, the Facebook group shares podcasts, books, TED Talks, and videos that offer stepping stones to wellness.

It’s not doom and gloom at all on the Veterinary Mental Health Awareness page. The large group has a very welcoming presence and emphasizes shared experiences.

“That’s one thing that we all share, the mental health memes. It’s sometimes nice to realize ‘oh, you guys also just lie awake and think about all the silly mistakes you made right before you go to bed!’ Just silly stuff like that,” says Rosie of the page.

Stigma vs. Science

Mental illness affects millions of people globally, but stigma quiets the suffering voices. Rosie hopes to decrease mental health stigma by acknowledging that sometimes the only thing veterinary scientists will listen to is … well … science!

She says it is incredibly validating for scientists with mental illness to discover a science-based etiology for their symptoms related to major life-events, heredity, or external factors. The page highlights relevant journal articles, online training, and other resources on such topics as generalized anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), building confidence, healthy work environments, and assertiveness. She also provides specific resources for Illinois students.

“I want people to be able to CTRL-FIND whatever they need,” says Rosie, emphasizing her desire to be a quick resource for people with little time.

She also believes it’s never too late to get help. Rosie commends members of previous generations who had not been given opportunities to deal with mental illness due to stigma and who are brave enough to reach out for help now.

Taking the Hassle Out of Getting Help

Rosie also leads an anxiety and depression support group at the college. Meetings are open to students and faculty and focus on strategies for coping with mental health issues while succeeding in studies and career.

Guest speakers sometimes present information to the group. For example, because not many insurance plans cover mental health needs, debt-burdened vet students may find it difficult to pay out of pocket for these services. Rosie arranged for a local counseling and mental health practice that accepts student insurance to attend a meeting, so students know that options for help are available.

Here to Help Students

Kate Irwin

Kate Hamilton joined the Office of Academic and Student Affairs in 2017 as the college’s first full-time licensed clinical social worker devoted to the needs of veterinary students. She says most U.S. veterinary colleges have one or more staff members in a similar role. A subgroup within the American Veterinary Medical Association connects these professionals so they can learn from one another.

Hamilton’s responsibilities range from fostering wellness through education to individual counseling to co-teaching an elective course entitled “The Healer’s Art.” During quarantine, she has been offering counseling sessions via telehealth.

“An important service I can provide is to connect students with support resources. Help is available to address academic accommodations, counseling referrals, sex education, physical therapy, and general coping skills, to name a few,” she said. “I am often invited to speak at the monthly meetings of the student’s mental health group or the Wellness Club.”

Hamilton is also gathering data on wellness factors to advance the field of supporting veterinary professionals.

“There are so many issues pressing upon our students,” she said. “There are financial worries, dealing with euthanasia of patients, problems of self-harm and imposter syndrome. My job is to be here for students when they need help.”

These guests described their client intake process, explained how to seek medication for emotional issues, and offered homeopathic remedies. The visit prompted several group members to begin therapy.

“It just really makes me sad when really intelligent, hard-working, passionate, people who just want to go out and help animals and people can’t help themselves,” Rosie says.

Group Anecdotes

The open-forum discussion system on the Facebook page allows people to ask anything. One member asked “How do you deal with a bad mental health day when you still have to study?” Rosie reported that many students chimed in with their study and coping tips.

Many group members are first- or second-year veterinary students. Rosie wants them to know: “If you’re panicking, don’t study that night. I know you’re studying the other days. Just take a break.”

The (Uncertain) Future

For those with mental illness, the future has always been uncertain. However, Rosie’s main motivation behind this project has been building a community where people understand that “it’s okay not to feel okay; just know that you’re not the only one.”

“I know everyone’s stories are different, but I feel their pain,” says Rosie. She is adamant that one of the most frightening parts of mental illness is when you think you’re the only one dealing with it. She hopes to build a strong community and resource to help veterinarians of all ages achieve emotional well-being.

Join the group here:

By Steph Maurer

Photo illustration from image by Natalie Zimmerman