As veterinarians, we spend our working days caring for others. But who cares for the caregiver? Your mental – and physical – wellness depends largely on your ability to care for yourself in addition to your patients. You don’t have to do it alone, but you have to do it. You’re the one who has to prioritize your own care as well as that of your patients and clients.
Why? It’s simple: If you’re not taking care of yourself, you’ll be less able to care for others. Your own wellness affects your ability to care for your patients and your loved ones.
A Moral Imperative
A growing body of scholars and mental health professionals now argue that veterinarians and other caregiving professionals have a moral imperative not just to help patients but also to help themselves.
“We’re having to redefine what is the ethical responsibility, that it includes not just working really hard but also keeping oneself well so that you can continue in the work and help with the other people in the profession or in your clinics,” said Dr. Elizabeth Strand, PhD, associate clinical professor and founding director of veterinary social work at the University of Tennessee CVM, in a 2015 JAVMA news article. In fact, the Green Cross Academy of Traumatology, a non-profit organization of trained traumatologists and compassion fatigue service providers, has put together standards of self-care for all of its members.
3 Steps, 8 Dimensions
There are numerous models offered by mental health professionals as approaches to caring for yourself. In the video shown here, mental health professional Sandra Martin, who is cited as a resource by veterinarian Dr. Carrie LaJeunesse in presentations on mental wellness in the veterinary profession, points to three steps needed for self care:
That’s good news – because it means that you’ve already started down the path. Simply by looking for resources on mental wellness, you’ve demonstrated awareness that it might be an issue affecting you. Once you’re aware that your own wellness is an important area of focus, you can assess your current situation and create a self-care plan.
The Professional Quality of Life Assessment tool is a great resource for assessment. It can help you measure how you are being affected in key areas related to mental wellness, which can then help you identify areas where you want to focus your self-care planning. If you haven’t already taken the assessment, consider starting there.
Other assessment tools available online include:
Self-reflection also can aid in remembering on a day-to-day basis where we are and what we need to start and/or continue doing. For a list of questions you can ask yourself every day to stimulate self-reflection, check out The Power of Self-Reflection.
Developing a Self-Care Plan
Once you’re ready to focus on more tactical planning for your mental wellness, experts advise that you develop and maintain a self-care plan based on your personal assessment(s), focusing on specific ways to improve key areas of both your personal and professional life. Many websites and professionals refer to a multi-dimensional model of self-care that looks at a broad range of factors influencing happiness and mental wellness. These dimensions can vary somewhat depending on the source you're reading, but Dr. LaJeunesse and Ms. Martin point to this eight-dimensional self-care model:
All eight of these areas offer opportunities to improve your mental outlook. In each area, assess where you are currently, and decide if you are personally satisfied with how you are doing. You can then identify areas to target for improvement. If, for example, you have strong familial relationships with people who provide you good emotional support, but concern about your financial situation is a key contributor to dissatisfaction for you, you can focus energy specifically on tasks to improve your financial outlook – whether through writing a will, creating a budget to help set aside savings or pay off student debt more quickly, or seeking additional income through a pay raise at work or outside employment.
Don’t forget to continue nurturing the areas where you’re already doing well. Your self-care plan should include both growth and maintenance goals addressing all eight dimensions.
Throughout these pages, we’ve tried to provide a wide range of resources, ideas and tools to help you craft and execute your self-care plan. Not all of these strategies will resonate with everyone, and some might work for you at certain times in your life but not others. So experiment with them, and adopt the ones that work for you while discarding others that might not.
How AVMA Can Help
Assess Your Wellness: Professional Quality of Life Assessment Tool
Webinar – Staying Afloat: Professional Stress and Well-being
Caring for Yourself Pocket Card (PDF)
Additional Reading & Resources
Who in Your Practice Has Experienced Compassion Fatigue, Burnout or Depression?
Introduction to Wellness
7 Ways to Practice Emotional First Aid
Everyday Habits that Can Boost Mental and Physical Well-being
Green Cross Standards of Self-Care
UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Lab: Guided meditations