From the Sideview Mirror: A Different Perspective on Mental Health in the Veterinary Profession
WARNING: This article contains information about suicide, which may be upsetting to some people.
Why does the veterinary profession have these mental health challenges?
Sean: People drawn to veterinary medicine are typically intelligent, good-hearted people who love and want to help animals. They are often introverted by nature and are drawn to a fulfilling career that they believe is mainly focused on animals. But that isn’t the reality. The job is all about people, and being face-to-face with them every day, often under very stressful and challenging circumstances. An empathetic and introverted person may struggle with this but feel unable to express their emotions verbally. We’ve seen this communication gap not only with doctors but also with entire hospital teams. It’s a massive challenge. People are bottling up their emotions and feel they can’t ask for help.
Dan: It’s also difficult because veterinary professionals are dealing with emotionally charged issues every single day. I think about the day when Angus, my Boston Terrier, is going to die. He’s geriatric, almost blind, and his bodily functions are going. But my kids have known Angus all their lives. When he dies, I’m going to be a big ball of mess. I cannot imagine dealing with huge emotions multiple times a week. It is like a soldier going to war and getting pummeled over and over again.
Sean: On top of that, you’re a human being like the rest of us. You have relationships and you’re trying to create time for yourself. If you’re lucky, you have time to exercise or pursue a passion besides veterinary medicine. The nature of the profession is such that you may not get out on time to do what you want to do. You may have to work weekends and holidays. And you’re not trained to manage people. You join a practice and there are all these things that you’re exposed to that don’t come naturally to you, or you’re not actually made aware of how to do them. How unsettling must that feel?
How can veterinary professionals triumph over the challenges they face?
Dan: Have you ever seen someone out running in the middle of a blizzard? If you have, it was probably me. I do it to challenge myself and help build my resilience, both physical and mental. Mental resilience, in particular, is an incredibly powerful attribute, and I’m committed to creating a more resilient organization so that when things don’t go our way, we have a healthy way to cope. I don’t want another person to take his or her life.
There will always be things that are out of our control. We can’t control the actions of a cyberbully or prevent the cruel words of a nasty person. But the more we accept that we can’t control these things, the more peace we’ll have and the more we can focus on the things we can control. This is my mindset, and it gives me meaning. It helps build my mental resilience — callouses my mind — and enables me to accept challenges and persevere.
I’m at the point in my life where I crave obstacles because I know they will make me stronger. I try to constantly pull myself out of my comfort zone because it’s okay for me to be uncomfortable. But I’m not a veterinarian. Veterinarians are known perfectionists, so moving out of their comfort zone can be challenging because it means they might make a mistake. Making a mistake might be hard to accept, but it can also help a person learn something for the future, and that’s really powerful. But a perfectionist might not be able to think that way. That’s one of the reasons many veterinarians have been so successful. They’re striving for perfection. But perfection doesn’t exist. At Rarebreed, we aim for a culture that is comfortable knowing we will never be perfect, but we can always be better.
Any last thoughts?
Dan: I remember when I was about five years old, I ripped a branch off a tree and my father asked, “How do you know that the tree didn’t feel that?” My dad is a very compassionate person. He taught me to believe in the power of compassion and optimism, which are at the very heart of the veterinary profession. At Rarebreed, our mission is to create an environment where people feel fulfilled, happy and engaged, and believe that what they do has meaning. What could be more meaningful than going to work every day and taking care of people’s pets?
Sean: One of the most important things I’ve learned is that if there is something in life you want to do, don’t wait. Happiness comes in a lot of forms, and there are many different paths to getting there, but at the end of the day, being happy is all any of us really wants. Do whatever it takes to make yourself happy. I was lucky to come from a big, supportive family who made happiness a priority. At Rarebreed, we play the same role and offer that same support as a big family — we make team happiness our priority.
If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-900-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The Lifeline network is available 24/7 across the United States. You can also text HOME to the 24/7 crisis text line at 741741.