I'm a veterinarian—not a superhero
Three recent things prompted me to put some thoughts down regarding the ongoing discussion about mental health in our profession. One was Dr. Andy Roark's video "Five signs it's time to quite your job;" another was a short article Veterinary Medicine Medical Editor Heather Lewellen, DVM, wrote on her personal battle with compassion fatigue; and the third was a post on a pre-vet Facebook page where a student expressed that he will "do whatever it takes" to become a veterinarian.
Taking all three into account, there seems to be an unfortunate, all-or-nothing response that we think is required to do our job. It's a pressure we not only put on ourselves but also is reinforced by others both in and out of the profession. It starts when we’re veterinary students and carries through our careers as we tell ourselves we must enjoy every aspect of our job and do good works at all times—and it's making us miserable.
Here are a few initial—personal—takeaways:
> No. 1: I'm going to complain about my job just like anyone else in any other job does and that's OK. It doesn't mean you should leave your job and it doesn't mean you should feel bad that you're not as enamored with it as a fellow colleague. To complain about legitimate frustrations is a relief valve for many of us.
> No. 2: I am thrilled when I don't have to work. And I do not feel the need to do more than I already do.
> No. 3: While I haven't forgotten why I got into this job, I have come to the conclusion that what I currently do is not the job that I thought it would be.
It's a job
Ultimately, no matter what else, being a veterinarian is a job. You may call it a vocation or a career or a calling; it still comes down to being a job. I don't define myself by my job. When I say I'm a veterinarian, it's not who I am, but what I do.
Some people might see that statement and think that I'm less of a veterinarian because of it. Here's the thing—I do this job well. Just because I don't invest even more of myself than I currently do is a choice. When I read about Dr. Lewellen feeling emotionally disconnected from a client not wanting to pursue treatment or diagnostics for a pet, I thought that odd because I do the same thing. I try not to take things personally and purposefully create some emotional distance from clients and their choices. I think it’s a healthy protective mechanism, and I think it's OK to do it. We have a tendency to internalize and make ourselves sick because we don't understand people who don't feel about animals the same way we do. I find that I care more about most of my clients' pets than they do.
I don't suffer from compassion fatigue so much as I do idiot fatigue. Granted, there's a lot of overlap. The idiots interfere in our ability to treat their own animals and that incurs frustration on our part. Advocating for animals to some people who don't follow or appreciate our advice is a serious stressor. That's why you have to divorce yourself from that stressor, to some degree. While I will continue to advocate for appropriate veterinary care, if an individual pet owner doesn't want to pursue something, more effort on my part is not necessarily going to get them to do it. It is not a failure on our part for someone else to make bad choices. I think we suffer from the realization that many pet owners are not as invested in their pets as we thought when considering this profession. It can be very disheartening.
Put veterinary 'heroism' on a shelf, not a pedestal
We raise up on a pedestal those of us who are involved in charitable organizations, spay days, vaccine clinics, rescue groups and all of the myriad other ways in which we can do animal care outside of our main jobs. And that's fine and laudable. However, it seems that when we talk about these people, there's internal pressure we put on ourselves to do all of those things also—because if we aren't doing those things, there's something inherently wrong with us.
When I hear the list of what some people are doing, I feel intimidated too. And I wonder in what other areas they may not be so accomplished. Because when you're devoting so much time and energy into one aspect of your life, other areas will suffer. If that one area of your life is sufficient and makes you happy, then that's good and I'm happy for you. I just worry that there are many of us out there who are letting things in our life slide while trying to live up to this idealized version of being a veterinarian.
I'm sure you've had clients say hurtful things about how "you don't love animals" or "you're just in it for the money." Again, the message here is that if you don't do things for people and animals all the time—if you don't change your hours for their convenience, if you don’t give discounts and freebies when asked, if you’re not there for them every waking moment—then you aren't doing your job.
Look, I go to work, do a good job and then leave work. I don't do extracurricular animal-related activities. And that's OK. It’s enough to just do your job well. I'm not always perfect in keeping tendrils of work from following me home in my psyche. I recognize, however, that as long as I do my best, that's all that should be expected from me.
Get over the 'good guy' complex
Someone pointed out to me that when you get a group of veterinarians or veterinary technicians together we start a game of one-upmanship as to who works the hardest. We don't intentionally do it. We just start talking about what we do: how many hours we work, whether nights and weekends are involved, how we incorporate our family into working pet adoption shows, what rescue groups we work with, etc. And I think we do this because we have a worry of how we are viewed or judged, not only by our peers but also by society. We want to be viewed as the good guys. We seem to think that the more we do for others in this profession—especially when we’re not compensated for it—the more the world will like us. This causes many of us to over-extend. It starts in veterinary school. Look at how many hours of volunteer time are required to get into veterinary schools—hundreds. You know how many hours are required for medical school? None.
I see the pre-vets already doing one-upmanship with how many volunteer hours they’ve logged, already putting pressure on themselves and their peers to do more. Look, folks, there is only so much any one person can do.
Stop the associate bullying
This next comment is to practice owners, because I hear far too much about how we are expecting new grads to endure the same hardships we went through when we graduated. Listen up. The pressures are different than even 20 years ago. Trust me. They don't need us to ride their backs and work 70 to 80 hours a week because they have to "pay their dues." Why do we think that's OK? It wasn't really even OK when we were subjected to it. Considering the enormously higher debt load, what we owe those who come behind us is to find ways to make things easier for them, not harder.
We need a paradigm shift in practice. And it's going to be hard for many of us. Forty hours is enough to work in any job, even a veterinary one. If you want or need to do uncompensated animal work outside of the job, pace yourself. Learn to say “no.” As trite as it sounds, we need to find balance.
When we’re students, we have all that time and energy and it's easy to log those hundreds of hours of volunteer time. As we mature, however, we get friends and family and hobbies and children, yet we still have that impulse that we're supposed to be always doing and giving for the sake of the animals. And we feel guilty, or are made to feel guilty, when we aren't fully occupied in doing animal care. We have to decide whether we are in this profession for the short term or the long haul, because we are literally killing ourselves as caregivers. You can only give of yourself so much before the tank runs dry. And you don't have to be all things to all people at all times—because if you are doing that, you aren't being what you need to be for yourself.
A graduate of UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Dean Scott has enjoyed 35 years in the veterinary profession, including five years with the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps. He now practices small animal medicine at Animal Clinic of Brandon in Brandon, Florida.