Mental Health and Wellness in the Veterinary Profession

When someone asks me, “What do you do?” and I tell them I’m a small animal veterinarian, their eyes brighten.  Then they proceed to tell me their favourite story about their pet.  I’m grateful that the public perception of veterinarians is so positive.

But underneath that happy veneer, many of my colleagues are suffering, often in silence.   I know because I’ve had my share of it.  This was confirmed when I attended the 2017 AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference and the 2015 Veterinary Wellness and Social Work Summit, read about it in an article by Dr. Debbie Stoewen, saw it posted in social media on Facebook sites like “Not One More Vet”, and discussed it at Mindfulness Meditation Retreats led by VIN’s Dr. Michele Gaspar.

Today is Bell’s “Let’s Talk” day, where the aim is to use social media and texting to increase the awareness of mental health & wellness.  A big part of it is decreasing the stigma of even mentioning it’s happening.  It’s a difficult subject but bringing it out in the open makes it easier to seek support when needed.

Although talk and awareness is good, I’m glad to be a part of the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association 2017 Annual Conference, where the program includes wellness events.  It will be our second year, sponsored by Merial.  There’s yoga every morning with Denise Gilbert-Jeanes, RVT, RYT.  I’ll be leading Midday Mindfulness Meditation (breath-focused sitting, 15 minutes, in a chair) and evening Restorative yoga.  Staying well mentally requires to tools to do so and I hope that the veterinarians attending the conference take the chance to learn about this, just like they’re learning how to become better at their medical and business skills.

The Ontario Veterinary College is also helping the students address wellness by creating a one week elective course, which will include a yoga session.  Kudos to Dr. Colleen Best and her colleagues for developing this program and inviting me to teach yoga.  As someone who spends a lot of time with the thoughts in her head, getting in touch with my body has been a work-in-progress.  I’m a little better at it than I was in vet school but it requires regular attention to body sensations and breath, at work and at home.  My body is usually aware of my reactions to situations, before I can even think it!

So help me out today and share this post on Facebook, Twitter or by texting, using the hashtag #BellLetsTalk.  It makes a difference!

You are more tender than you know

I dreamt of meeting Jack Kornfield, in an alternate reality.  However, in the world of my dream, Jack was not Jack as he had come to be known.  He was still kind and gentle.  His mannerisms were the same.  But somehow, he didn’t have any idea he was a senior Buddhist meditation teacher.  Despite my insistence at who he was, he pleaded ignorance.  Instead, he repeated he was a merchant (I don’t even know what he was selling in my dream!).  I reminded this other Jack that he had met the Dalai Lama and many important spiritual leaders.  “Other Jack” shook his head and simply said no, that was not who he was.  I eventually left him, feeling disappointed I hadn”t found the person who had led me through a masterful week of mediation and storytelling.

I was drawn to a retreat at Kripalu in April 2016, led by Jack Kornfield and two of his senior teachers.  I’d read some of his books but hadn’t studied his work intensely. I knew enough to be curious about what else he might teach.

What I learned resonated with me so much I am still processing it, 6 months later.  I was especially drawn to the meditations called Big Sky Bell Meditation, Luminous Being, compassion and another one on lovingkindness.   I haven’t written about it until now because I feel limited in my ability to express what I am trying to integrate and internalize. The teachings have deeper meaning as I go through my everyday (small animal clinical practice, my mother-in-law’s death from cancer, my Mom’s recovery from acute kidney failure, building a house with my husband).  I find myself living Jack’s wisdom, as I go through each of these experiences.

I think my dream was telling me how time spent with Jack could only happen once.  Even if I went to see him speak again, it would not be the same.  He would not be the same.  Despite my insistence at who I thought he should be, Jack would have changed into someone else, in another time.  In actuality, it would be me that had changed, as well as my perception of him.

At the end of the week long retreat, Jack told us, “You are more tender than you know.  Give yourself time to reintegrate.”  Although an eager student for all his teachings so far, I dismissed this advice at first.

“I’m what?  No, not me!”, I thought.

I quickly realized the retreat had left me quite open-hearted and vulnerable.  The people who sat silently beside me in meditation were now my friends and I would miss them!  Swami Kripaku’s meditation garden felt exceptionally quiet and sacred as I walked about.  When I touched the oldest tree on the grounds of Kripalu, tears filled my eyes as I felt the sense of time and how long the Camperdown Elm had stood watch over her spot.  I was bewildered at this change but I didn’t fight it.  Gradually I let myself return to reality, forever touched by this experience.  Which is why it can never be repeated again.  Jack was who he was at that moment in time.  I was there to learn what he had to say then and only then.

Making Space for Silence

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There’s so much external noise, sometimes it’s hard to hear myself think.  Lately, I’ve been trying to make some space.

Starting the Midday Mindfulness Meditation at the Ontario Veterinary Medical Association Conference was a step in that direction.   Continue reading

Mindfulness Meditation at OVC

My life decisions over the last five years are taking me places I never expected to go.  Introducing mindfulness meditation to the students at the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) is definitely one of those.

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2014 Mindfulness Meditation Retreat

Before I knew it, the weekend I’d been anticipating for so long had finally arrived.  I was on a plane to Chicago for the 2014 Mindfulness Meditation Retreat, organized by Michele Gaspar, to see old friends and meet some new ones.

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Mindfulness and maple syrup

Call me a modern day pioneer woman.

For my birthday, I received a book called “Modern Pioneering“. The author, Georgia Pellegrini, is a cook, gardener, outdoor adventurer and do-it-yourself kind of gal.  As someone who just got her own Leatherman multi-tool (the Charge AL model, just in case you were wondering), I can identify with her.

In the spirit of self-sufficiency, I’m making my own maple syrup.  This is the third year that my husband and I have done it.  So Canadian, eh?

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2013 Mindfulness Retreat

I’d forgotten my iPhone in the front seat of the truck, which meant my husband had to turn around and drop it off to me at the train station.  As he passed me the phone, he said “You’re going to work on your mindfulness this weekend, right?”.  Yeah.

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