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Breaking the stigma in regards to mental illness in vet med

INSTAGRAM @dr.kellydvm   
Kelly Hicks is a recent graduate from St. George’s University School of Veterinary Medicine where she completed her clinical rotations at the University of Pennsylvania. Kelly is currently at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine for a small animal rotating internship with goals of applying to oncology residencies this upcoming year. Her self-care hobbies include exercising, hanging out with friends, traveling, and spending time in nature.

As a veterinary student, I would say that we in the profession commonly put our personal wellness on the back burner when it comes to prioritizing our everyday needs. 

According to a study published in JAVMA in 2018, veterinary professionals are more likely to lose their lives from suicide than the general population. Astounding. But why might this be the case?

Veterinarians work in high stress environments every day and I personally believe we rank all other needs before ourselves, because, well, it’s just in our nature to. We prioritize the health of our patients first and foremost to the point of emotional burnout and compassion fatigue. Our astronomical student loans always linger over our heads like a dark cloud, and we are just waiting for the storm to come. We are often ridiculed by our clients who say we are only in it for the money, when in reality they’re usually unaware of the disconnect between our annual salary and loan payments. Despite that, we all still chose this profession because of our love for helping animals.

I’m here to tell you that I, too, am guilty of neglecting my wellness. My undergraduate years were an arduous time for me, especially in relation to my own emotional wellbeing. As a typical student trying to find their purpose in life, I felt constantly bombarded with societal expectations that I should “have it together by now,” and “know the end goal.” That constant pressure brought out such intense anxiety in my being and it felt as if I was drowning and couldn’t remember how to swim. On top of my overwhelming anxiety, I also felt unrelenting sadness and had zero motivational drive to do anything, such as study, attend classes, eat, or even get out of bed for that matter. I withdrew myself from all social activities, and by doing so, I felt even more isolated. The vicious cycle kept spiraling out of control and I was completely powerless in stopping it.

My grades dropped because of my poor mental health and consequently, I didn’t get accepted to vet school during my first application cycle. I felt as if I hit rock bottom and I was disappointed in myself for letting my internal struggles take over my life. It was at this exact moment that I came to the realization my Creator had a plan for me and this was a sign that it wasn’t my time yet. 

I needed to take a step back and make MYSELF my priority before committing the rest of my life to the veterinary profession. So, I spent my gap year improving my application, but more importantly, bettering myself. I learned more about myself than I had ever before—how exercising heightened my everyday mood, my love for traveling, and how much I value spending quality time with family and friends. I finally felt in control of my emotions. I finally understood what the word wellness meant and how to fulfill it in my own, unique way.

Although I was never formally diagnosed with anxiety or depression, the feelings I experienced were real and strong. Ultimately, I did see a psychologist regularly and often called my sister for support, which helped me push through this difficult time in my life. 

There is a huge stigma around mental illness which prevents us from seeking help during times of distress. As veterinarians, we are gifted the power of humane euthanasia in our patients unlike that of our human counterparts, and with this comes tremendous responsibility. We must act as our client’s support system and bear the weight of their sorrow, time and time again. Eventually, the burden can become too heavy for us to handle, but we are reluctant to seek help because of the fear of being judged for what we do by our community.

By sharing my story with you all, I hope to break the stigma and shame in regard to mental illness. I want to show you not to be afraid of discussing your feelings and confiding in others for support, because talking about them is the first step to improving your mental health and therefore becoming a better veterinarian. 

I also want to remind you that your internal feelings do not define you as a person. If you are feeling any ounce of unhappiness in your life, know it is only temporary and can always be overcome with the right resources, mindset, and support system. Additionally, I encourage you to make YOURSELF your top priority no matter what. When it has been an emotionally exhausting week at the clinic, go home and take the time to practice self-care and partake in the activities that truly make you happy, whether it may be getting a massage on the weekend, painting, reading a book, or going on vacation with your favorite gals. Work-life balance is essential in our profession and will often lead to our happiness and overall success. 

Lastly, if you see a fellow classmate struggling after an exam or colleague looking overwhelmed at work, I encourage you to reach out and offer support to them by asking one simple question, “How are you doing today?” I guarantee they will appreciate the time you took out of your day to talk to them. The veterinary community needs each other, now more than ever, to combat the high suicide rates in our profession and to encourage discussion about mental health.

If you’re ever feeling overwhelmed or need advice in bettering your mental health, visit the AVMA’s website for more information. And if you or someone you know is in an immediate crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to get help.

References

Tomasi, Suzanne E., Ethan D. Fechter-Leggett, Nicole T. Edwards, Anna D. Reddish, Alex E. Crosby, and Randall J. Nett. “Suicide among Veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 254, no. 1 (January 1, 2019): 104–12. https://doi.org/10.2460/javma.254.1.104.

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