The blog post titled “Work-Life Balance Is Not Enough: Focusing on the Bigger Picture,” goes beyond the idea of “work-life balance” and focuses on general wellbeing, and it was inspired by my time at the 2019 AVMA Wellbeing Summit. This is a follow-up post, where I wanted to share some of my other big takeaways from the summit. 

For those that are not aware, the AVMA Wellbeing Summit is an annual gathering of veterinary professionals who are committed to improving the wellbeing of the entire profession. There were a variety of people represented in the audience, including veterinary students, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, veterinary support staff, mental health professionals, and health professionals outside of veterinary medicine.

I felt called to attend this summit as someone who advocates for financial wellness within the veterinary profession. But as we all know, financial wellness does not exist in a vacuum. It is an important component to our overall wellbeing, and it’s so critical that we understand how to take care of our whole selves.

This summit did not disappoint. Here are some key points that stood out to me:

“TRASH YOUR VALUES” EXERCISE

This exercise, led by Dr. Elizabeth Strand, the director of Veterinary Social Work at the University of Tennessee, was an eye-opener.

We were all instructed to pick our top 10 core values from a slide and write each one on individual yellow Post-It notes. These are the values that we hold nearest and dearest to our hearts.

Here were my core values, in no particular order:

  • Kindness
  • Security
  • Contribution
  • Love
  • Authenticity
  • Balance
  • Peace
  • Spirituality
  • Fitness/Health
  • Learning

We were then instructed to “trash our values” with the help of our neighbors to our left and right. Nervous laughter filled the air as these people (we had just met!) began to take away our values, one by one. Having them literally taken away in paper form was a bit disconcerting. As with many things we hold dear, whether they are physical objects, relationships, our health, or our core values, we don’t realize how much we cherish them until they are taken away.

Eventually, it was up to each of us to narrow down our choices to one core value. This. Was. Hard. How can you possibly choose, when everything seems so important?

Sometimes, it’s hard to set our priorities when there are so many competing commitments that we make to others and to ourselves. By understanding your core values (here’s a list by author James Clear as an example), it’s easy to see whether your priorities are, in reality, aligning with your actions.  It’s a difficult exercise, but a necessary one. Life feels really, really hard the larger the gap between your core values and how you’re actually living your life. Do you have a gap? If so, what are you doing to narrow that gap? 

(By the way, my last remaining core value was Love.)

THE BIG 5 PERSONALITY ASSESSMENT

I admit- I love personality tests. Observing my own personality (quirks and all!), as well as the personalities of others, has always sparked my curiosity.

There is no doubt that each of us are unique, but it’s interesting to see how an entire profession can have an overrepresentation of certain personality traits. 

Those who attended this session were given a Big Five Personality Assessment worksheet, which you can find here.  I learned that veterinarians tended to be more neurotic than the general population, whereas we scored lower in extraversion, agreeableness, and openness. Here were my personal results (on a scale from 1-5):

Conscientiousness Score: 4.67

Extraversion Score: 2.3

Agreeableness Score: 4.67

Openness Score: 3.3

Neuroticism Score: 3

There is no such thing as a perfect assessment or score- each of these traits have desirable and not-so-desirable components to them. By understanding your own personality, you can better understand ways to work with, not against, your personality type.

“Know Thyself” sounds deceptively simple, but once you start to do the work of getting to know yourself better, you’ll see how much this impacts not only you, but also those whom you interact with on a regular basis.

This session also introduced me to this nifty new vocabulary word: 

Alexithymia: Inability to identify and express or describe one’s feelings

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

In the busy-ness of our day-to-day lives, we rarely stop to reflect on our emotions. Negative emotions are buried deep, or we may try to run away from them as quickly as possible. Positive emotions are appreciated, but instant gratification and our fast-paced lives don’t allow us much time to sit with these positive emotions as much as we probably should.

Regardless, it’s no wonder that alexithymia is likely very common among all of us, especially since mindfulness and awareness of your emotional state aren’t skills that are typically taught or valued. Thankfully, this is changing as the conversation around wellbeing is becoming more normalized.

WE’RE NOT ALONE

It was encouraging to see the transdisciplinary nature of the conference. There were several physician speakers who shared their perspectives, and it was very clear that veterinary medicine is not alone in the quest to improve wellbeing. 

At the heart of it, we’re all humans who come across times of difficulty. Those in the health professions have unique struggles, as we are coping with stressful jobs and many situations that are emotionally draining. People who gravitate towards these fields have a desire to help and serve, and it is this compassionate nature that can also lead us to an emotionally dry well from which we have little left to give.

Working with other professions can only enhance the wellbeing of this profession. We cannot stay in our own bubble, thinking that veterinary medicine has nothing to learn from outside resources. Yes, we have some unique challenges, but reaching across the aisle is how “a rising tide can lift all boats.”

THE ASPIRE CLINIC AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GEORGIA

In the session “Transitioning Your Skills for Wellbeing: From Vet School to Career,” counselors Elizabeth Cheely and Stevie Stigler, both from the University of Georgia, spoke about a wonderful resource for University of Georgia veterinary students and graduates. The ASPIRE Clinic serves as a community resource for counseling and education. This also includes financial counseling and education services for free or on a sliding fee schedule. 

This is a fantastic model that helps fill the gap for veterinary students and new graduates who are in a stage of transition that can be financially difficult. The reality of what it means to have student loans and how to manage your money AFTER graduation can be a rude awakening. Too often, we’re left to figure out our financials without the help of reliable and trustworthy resources. Hopefully other veterinary programs have, or will have, similar programs available for their own students so that they can begin their careers on the right (financial) foot. 

QPR TRAINING

It’s not a surprise that a veterinary wellbeing conference would address the issue of suicide within the profession. This is, unfortunately, a topic that weighs heavily on the profession.

It is a multi-faceted issue where there are no easy solutions. What we can do is to become more educated about the subject matter so that we can take actionable steps when needed. That’s why I found the QPR training, led by AVMA’s director of wellbeing Dr. Jen Brandt, to be an important featured presentation during the summit.

For those that aren’t aware, the QPR acronym stands for Question, Persuade, Refer. This is the process by which lives can be saved when someone is considering taking their own life.

Q: Question

There are direct and indirect ways in which to ask whether someone is considering suicide. We had to come up with our own examples of how to ask these questions, and needless to say, this felt very uncomfortable. However, it was important to brainstorm different ways to pose both direct and indirect questions.

P: Persuade

Next, it’s necessary to let the person speak as you lend a listening ear. Focus on the person and what they are needing from you at that moment. This person has already opened up to you by acknowledging their suicidal thoughts, and your job is to persuade them to get some help. The fact that you care enough to listen helps to mitigate the situation.

R: Refer

At this point, you will want to take the final step of assuring that they get the professional help that they need. It would be useful to know of resources beforehand so that you can quickly get them to where they need to go.

After learning about the QPR process, it was time for us to role play with one another. We all paired up, and one person took the role of the person considering suicide, while the other person was the friend/family member/colleague. 

Everyone I spoke with agreed….this was a very difficult exercise. Even knowing that I was role-playing and that these were not real conversations still caused me to feel physical signs of nervousness and worry.

It is a heavy topic, and it certainly gave me additional respect for all of the mental health counselors who navigate this from a professional perspective, in addition to those who are suffering from mental health and their loved ones who want so desperately to help. For more information, refer to this website.

As a quick note, I didn’t realize that there are correct and incorrect ways to refer to a suicide. We often hear the term “committed suicide,” and it is now customary to replace this phrasing with “died by suicide.”

To say “committed” implies that the person did this willfully, rather than this action being a result of a mental illness (which is not a choice). There is also stigma around the word “committed,” as we often hear this being paired with immoral acts, such as committing a crime. Although this word choice seems so small, this change helps reduce the stigma around mental illness.

ENDING ON A POSITIVE NOTE

Quincy Hawley, DVM has been a guest poster on this blog, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and speaking with him in person. I absolutely loved his talk, “The Power of You: A Story of Commitment, Imagination, Action, and Transformation.”

Quincy’s talk was a breath of fresh air to a summit that heavily focused on the difficult parts of wellbeing. To hear him relate his own story in person was powerful, and if you read through this interview, you’ll understand why. Ultimately, it’s a story of inspiration and hope. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, please do so!

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

If you weren’t aware, the AVMA recently rolled out My Veterinary Life, (which also has a podcast by the same name) which focuses on the topics of career development, financial health, and well-being for veterinarians. Be sure to check it out!

The Veterinary Debt Initiative is a joint initiative between the AAVMC (Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges), the AVMA, and the VMAE (Veterinary Medical Association Executives) that aims to help veterinarians thrive financially in their careers.

Wonder what it means to “flip your lid?” I had never heard of this hand model that you can use to think about your brain and your emotions. You can hear Dr. Dan Seigel discussing this concept in this video. I also found this fun video geared towards children, which my kids really enjoyed. 

And of course, there is the Merck Veterinary Wellbeing Study, which has been a personal inspiration for me to start this blog. I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. John Volk at the summit, and he will be presenting some new findings early next year. Stay tuned to hear the latest!

CONCLUSION

I am heartened to see that steps are being taken in both the wellbeing space and in the personal finance space. And yes- financial wellness did come up time and again throughout the summit. Normalizing the conversation around wellbeing AND money has the potential to help so many of those who need a solid educational foundation about these topics. Pretending that these matters don’t exist is unreasonable and dangerous.

I am also glad to hear that veterinary school programs are incorporating more wellness and wellbeing into the curriculum. The hope is that these veterinary students will have the necessary tools to feed and nourish their wellbeing well after graduation.

There is no doubt that we need resources for veterinarians that are already out in the workforce. I graduated in 2003, and for DVM’s such as myself, there was virtually no talk of wellness or wellbeing as a part of the curriculum. There certainly wasn’t any emphasis on financial wellness. We need to ensure that this message of wellbeing is widely available to everyone, not just veterinary students and those in academic settings.

Ensuring the wellbeing of all veterinary professionals will be essential for the health and prosperity of our profession. 

Were you at the AVMA Wellbeing Summit? What were your thoughts? Did you have any takeaways that you wanted to share? Comment below!

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