Did you hear that? In case you missed it, it was the sound of my soapbox being drug out of hiding and the creaking noise it makes when I climb on top. If you aren’t in the mood for a rant, now’s the time to click a new Facebook post preferably one that puts you in a positive mood or makes you laugh. If you are like me you try to hang with like-minded people on social media. You look for positive change makers and when you find them click the like button and fill your feed with “good” stuff. Sadly, even if you actively cultivate the positive you are gonna get your share of BS (no, I do not mean Bachelor of Science, British Standard or Bowel Sounds). People trying to pull you down into their pit of self-righteous judgment and superiority. It is hard to ignore, harder still not to get drawn in and when you do, hard to wash the stain of that BS off your own hands.
What has gotten me all worked up was a recent post on my communities FB page. Let me be clear, this is not the official community page but one of those “Whoville Talks/Rants” pages. I liked this page thinking it would be a way to stay informed about said Whoville events and issues but have found there is a subtle distinction between a “talks” page and a “rants” page. A recent post regarding an altercation between a dog and cyclist in little Whoville got my dander up. It’s not the first time that I have read a post on social media and felt annoyed but it was the first time I was brave enough to respond. Perhaps it is because I too have been slandered online (and offline). Perhaps it is because the post involved a dog issue and I am a veterinarian. Perhaps it was because the post involved a person I know, and felt great empathy towards given the thoughtless and downright mean comments people in Whoville were posting. In reality, it is probably because of where my head is these days.
I have been leading a pretty idyllic life. 2 years ago I stepped off the so-called hamster wheel to try and figure out a new way of living. Not everyone gets it and that’s okay because it has been a personal journey. I am happier than I’ve ever been. I have spent the last 2 years seeing the world, working as a volunteer veterinarian and meeting some pretty amazing people. Contrary to what a lot of people think, I wasn’t on a “holiday” or “retired” but figuring out a different way to live and also figuring out what I wanted from the years remaining to me. One thing is clear, I love being a vet, I love meeting people and sharing our stories and I am truly saddened by the crisis in our profession.
Working as a volunteer veterinarian I have met many amazing members of our profession from veterinarians, veterinary technicians/nurses/assistants to managers and client care specialists/receptionists. Some are happy and love their profession but many are disillusioned and struggling with burnout and compassion fatigue. Bright young people are leaving our profession and sometimes checking out permanently. Recent studies show newly graduated Veterinary Technicians leave the field after 5 years. In 2018 a sobering statistic was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. In the United States, the risk of death by suicide for female veterinarians is 3.5X higher than the population at large and 2X higher for male veterinarians. Studies in other countries including Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom present similar data. Just google suicide rates in veterinarians and you will see what I mean.
While this crisis has been front page news in the veterinary profession, I was surprised to find the average person is shocked to hear veterinary professionals, as a group, are struggling. Despite the media attention, the average Joe still sees our job as interesting, well paid and believes we spend most of our day playing with cute furry creatures. Don’t get me wrong, not every vet out there is struggling, in fact, many, like myself love the challenges and rewards of this demanding profession. However, the fact remains, when considering mental health and suicide, our job puts us at a higher risk. Recognizing this and talking about it is the first step in healing ourselves and our teams. Now the challenge is taking the next step, changing the way we work, examining the demands we place on ourselves and learning how to build healthy boundaries in our relationships with our teams and our clients. It is imperative we protect those vital guardians of animal health (your vet and their team) so they are there when we need them to protect and care for our furry family members.
For years I cared for my clients’ beloved pets and my team, sometimes putting my own needs on hold in the process. I now find myself in a pretty cool place with the opportunity to help find solutions to this crisis. To create responsive, resilient leaders, healthier workplaces and better boundaries for the people behind the hospital door. I have a plan (more on that in another blog) and am excited to start this new journey and this, my friends, brings me back to my soapbox.
A quick google search will bring up countless articles discussing the “why” of veterinary suicide risk. This article, while somewhat dated, gives a basic explanation of the reasons we are at higher risk, how to recognize if you or a coworker are at risk and how to respond if faced with a coworker who is struggling. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4266064/
The article addresses the factors that make veterinary medicine a challenging career. We work long hours, for much lower pay than what the public assumes we make and incur huge debt in order to achieve our career goals. We are not just doctors but also small business owners, mentors, HR directors, maintenance managers and some days therapists and psychologists (and not just for our 4 legged patients!) And yes, we are, for the most part, a group of driven perfectionists who take our human failures, our medical errors and our inability to save every patient very personally. What these articles sometimes fail to address is the impact of social media on our collective veterinary psyche and the potential this miracle of the modern age (the internet) has to tip the balance for a struggling individual. Over the years my sensitive soul has grown a thick protective layer, a professional “second skin” making the personal barbs and pokes hurt less when they are directed at me but which kick my maternal instincts into overdrive when directed at a coworker or colleague. A negative review, a comment made in frustration, a need to be right, a desire to feel vindicated or to put someone in their place. We have all been there and in this internet age, who among us is blameless in the social media game?
What good is a soapbox if you only rant and neglect to come up with any solutions? So here are a couple of suggestions to all those who have been wronged by their veterinary team. First, stop, calm down and put yourself in someone else shoes. Then go talk to your vet like a grown-up human being. Seek to understand and reach a resolution together before running to the internet. The internet will still be there tomorrow. Probably. Sadly. I am pretty sure there will be time for some slander later if you still feel the need to destroy another vet.
More importantly, for my colleagues, I want to share my secrets to developing a beautiful, thick and for myself, a decidedly more wrinkled exterior covering. A skin that will protect you in the dangerous days of the internet. A skin which I hope, you look upon with pride when you too find yourself a happy member of a pretty cool profession some 28 years down the road. ‘Cause if I made it this long, so can you!
- Every morning just get out of bed. Look at yourself in the mirror and tell your reflection you are not an imposter. Go to work. Do your best. All anyone can do is their best.
- Fail up. Failure is an opportunity to grow. Never waste an opportunity to grow.
- Practice veterinary medicine with honesty, integrity, and transparency. It makes it easier to look in the mirror every morning and your clients will see it and respect you for it.
- Let go of your need to be perfect. I know how hard this is but sometimes good enough, is good enough.
- Surround yourself with positive people. People who love YOU not Dr. YOU, the veterinarian. Seeking love and accolades from your clients is a slippery slope. Some are gonna love you. Some are gonna hate you and the majority are gonna be indifferent. Seek your love from relationships that matter and the people who are going to be in your life long after you retire.
- Build a life outside veterinary medicine. Make time for the things that bring you joy, recharge your batteries and make you feel complete. Do it and don’t tell me you don’t have any interests outside veterinary medicine! For god’s sake get one. Just one hobby. PLEASE!
- Learn how to say no. It is called creating healthy boundaries. Respectful boundaries. Do not feel guilty about this. It is not easy but it is what is going to save you and why you will still be here 28 years later when others may not.
- GET OFF those stupid Facebook “rant” pages. I am serious. Just do not look at them anymore, ever again, amen! Live in the blissful world of ignorance. It may be hard to believe but there was a world before social media and we all survived just fine.
Thank you for indulging me, friends. I am stepping off my soapbox now. Wondering what’s the clicking sound you just heard? Just me unliking the “Whoville talks” page. Please, go do the same.