I’m that typical veterinarian who dreamt of being a vet all her life. It was always my dream career and you know how the saying goes: do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life. That expectation was what kept me motivated throughout the challenging years of vet school – that oasis at the end of the long treacherous road. Then, after graduation, reality hit me like a brick wall; veterinary medicine is a hard career. Not only is it physically challenging, it is emotionally straining as well. I felt a sense of loss in my childhood ambitions and passion less than three years into my position as an associate veterinarian. I was burnt out and disappointed. I felt I had made the wrong choice.
The worst part about being burnt out in veterinary medicine is that anyone around you who isn’t in the field doesn’t understand the day to day challenges that we face. You start questioning yourself. Is it wrong for me to feel so drained at the end of a day that the most simple veterinary question from my friends and family triggers annoyance and irritation? Shouldn’t I be jumping out of my seat to give veterinary advice? Wasn’t this the career that I was promised to love for the rest of my life? The guilt of feeling like a villain in my own story crushed me, but what kept me going was knowing that I was not alone in all this mess. There were other veterinarians and veterinary staff out there who were stuck in this ‘new standard of practice’.
It was by a twist of fate that I was able to begin my journey to loving my job again. In 2022, my husband landed an anesthesiology residency in Rhode Island, which meant we had to uproot our comfortable life in New York and venture into New England territory. This big change induced so much anxiety; I’d never been to Rhode Island before and I didn’t know what the veterinary hospitals there would be like. I asked my colleagues for help and it ultimately led me to find IndeVets. I was thrust into the world of relief veterinary service that very summer, and I haven’t looked back since. I was able to gain control of my happiness again, and after a year of working relief, I found my passion for practice and felt the confidence to help others who were in my previous position.
NOMV’s Lifeboat program
When IndeVets introduced me to an opportunity to become a “companion” through Not One More Vet’s (NOMV’s) Lifeboat program, I was quick to sign up. As with many other veterinarians, I knew of Not One More Vet (NOMV) through its Facebook group and its mission to provide a unique peer-to-peer support system between those who know our career best: other veterinarians, veterinary technicians, nurses, assistants, and support staff. I hoped that by creating a community through Lifeboat, I would be able to help someone else find their road to recovery.
For those who aren’t familiar, NOMV’s Lifeboat is a web-based peer support space formed to discuss mental health and wellness issues under complete anonymity. Lifeboat aims to create an environment where veterinarians and veterinary staff can support each other through times of turbulence and mental crisis. By connecting with like-minded individuals who understand the adversities we each face within our line of work, we are able to validate our feelings and receive the support to get through our guiltiest of thoughts.
Through the program, I received training to become a “companion” who provides support to “peers” who are veterinary members seeking support. Once I began my companion training with NOMV, I was surprised by the wealth of knowledge they provided and the level of professional support they provide including Mental Health Consultants, mental health professionals who guide companions through the support system, as well as Lifeboat Mentors, who are veterinary professionals with special expertise on topics involving medical errors and practice transitions.
I learned that in order to be an effective companion, we must listen and share our experiences with peers. The goal is not to give advice or tell people what to do – rather, it is to cultivate a sense of belonging, understanding, and empowerment. We want to give support as like-minded colleagues and build a life of self-determination and encouragement in hopes of moving towards a path of health. I feel that there are some key principles that can help provide support to your immediate group of staff around you even if you are not part of the Lifeboat companion group. In hopes that it will provide some insight to those wanting to help, I will share some of these ideas with you.
5 key principles to help provide support to staff:
1. Recognizing the Road to Recovery
Mental health is a journey and it is important to recognize one’s road to recovery and that it is a self-directed process. We cannot force others to change; instead, it is our role to help guide them on their way to a solution. The goal of forming a community is to empower our peers and ourselves by providing resources in order to provide autonomy and independence.
2. Wellness is an Active Verb
Wellness is an active thought process that is not to be confused with the candle-lit baths and chocolate indulgence that only provide a short term fix. It is restrategizing your mind to understand that your job is not your only identifying feature, but rather a character trait that lives among the other great things you have to offer. Too often, when work becomes stressful, we are quick to cut off our hobbies first – skipping a gym session, rescheduling lunch with friends, or canceling that pottery class. We need to actively work towards putting our foot down and taking control of our mental health so that we can give ourselves the grace to be normal, regular human beings.This new train of thought requires rewiring and that is an active process that does not come naturally for the Type A personalities of our field.
3. Trauma Informed Support
Recognizing trauma within yourself or your peers is an important first step in seeking and providing support. Signs of trauma are categorized into three forms: intrusive, avoidance, and hyperarousal. Intrusive signs are the repetitive thoughts and distress one feels about the incidence. These thoughts can be triggered by experiencing similar emotions that are tied with the trauma. Avoidance is when one distances themselves from the event to disconnect themselves from the emotions related to the trauma, even forgetting that the event happened. Hyperarousal is when one is hypersensitive to the event, leading one to be sensitive and irritable to events relating to the trauma. By recognizing the signs of trauma, we can better support ourselves to seek support towards it and understand that it is not a character flaw nor a trait we have to live with forever.
4. Diversity & Inclusion
Diversity and inclusion plays into one’s identity. Identity can involve one’s culture, ethnicity, hobbies, marital status, body image, sexuality, occupation, goals, etc. It is never just one thing, and it is important to understand that the diversity of everyone’s identity may not always be visible to the outside world. When addressing how someone may feel about a situation and questioning why someone may have acted the way they did, consider their diversity and identity that may not have been physically visible.
5. Guidelines for Peer Support
Peer support is the foundation of Lifeboat. There is a special connection that we have between the professionals working in the veterinary field. Only a few of us in society can relate to the range of feelings from pain, loss, to peace while providing humane euthanasia and so it is important to have a peer to provide support and validate your feelings towards this shared experience. It is also important for the support to come from someone who is openly available themselves and in a healthy place to provide comfort.
Having a sense of belonging is critical when it comes to re-building your mental health and confidence. IndeVets was able to provide me with a lifestyle where I could rekindle my hobby for illustration and art; it gave me the freedom to match my husband’s wonky residency schedule to maximize our time together, and it provided a comforting work space full of support and community to fall back to for help.
After a year of working relief, I can happily say I am enjoying my career again and I’m well on my way in my journey of recovery. It has reminded me that my mental health and happiness is something I need to actively work towards and it is not to be taken for granted.
When they said “do what you love and you will never work a day in your life,” they didn’t clarify that the “what” includes your hobbies, family time, and a job that respects that as well. If you resonate with a lot of the things I felt, I recommend checking out NOMV’s Lifeboat. It’s free to make an account and you can use it as frequently or not as you’d like. Veterinary medicine is a rough career and no one should be expected to provide help to others and their pets without being able to help themselves first.