I know personally what it is like to face mental health challenges. If you struggle with similar challenges or know of anyone who does, it is important to know that you are not alone. And, at VCA, we’re making resources available to help.
The COVID pandemic highlighted for many of us how vulnerable we are as individuals and how fragile the world is in general. I know it was a stressful time for me and I am sure it was for many of you and those around you. Therefore, I decided that I wanted to share my personal story with my VCA family and other veterinary colleagues in hopes of it allowing others to feel encouraged and empowered to seek help when needed. Even if it feels uncomfortable at first, telling our stories can help others. We are all in this together.
My life took a similar path as many of my friends, colleagues, and associates in the veterinary world. I worked hard to get into veterinary school, achieved an internship, got married, moved across the country a few times, started a family, and, early in my career, even started my own practice.
Then in my mid-30s, I found myself with a sudden change in behaviors. I was fatigued, moody, judgmental, quick to anger and had significant unintended weight loss. I wanted to stay in bed, sleep, and tune out the rest of the world for prolonged periods. All of this was out of character, and these signs seemed to fall into categories of behavior that I later learned from professionals were red flags that perhaps I needed some help:
- Unwanted change in mood or behavior
- Neglect of personal well-being or engagement in activities that put health or safety at risk
- Changes in cognitive functioning
- Thoughts of harming self or others
Yet I got up every day and put on a professional face because that is what veterinary professionals do for their clients, patients, and our teams. We are a proud and responsible group; caring for others is rewarding and makes us feel better and less focused on ourselves.
Seeking help is never easy. Yet when my wife and co-workers started commenting on the noticeable weight loss, moodiness, and other behavioral changes, it became impossible to ignore that something was wrong.
Still, even when I started to accept that, I created roadblocks to getting help. I wasn’t sure where to find it. (This was many decades ago, long before the internet!) I didn’t have the time. How would I afford it? More honestly, I wanted to ignore the issue. It’s much easier to just press on with our day-to-day commitments than it is to stop and think about our self-care.
Finally, I saw a therapist. I remember that first visit vividly: She asked me how I felt, and I began describing feelings of helplessness and saying, ‘I wasn’t sure if I would ever feel happy again.’ It was obvious that I was struggling. Seeing the severity of my physical and emotional situation, she referred me to a psychiatrist who prescribed medication and recommended continuing weekly counseling.
“Expressing my feelings moved them from the inside, where they would create turmoil, to the outside, where I could begin to work with them. It was powerful, effective, and cathartic.”
The Climb Back
Thankfully, within weeks I felt some improvement. It was apparent that at least part of my issue was a biochemical imbalance, given how I responded to the medications. As the psychiatrist said, ‘just like a person with diabetes, you have a medical condition that luckily appears to respond to medication.’ And I continued weekly counseling sessions, which were also very helpful.
While I first resisted counseling, I quickly came to look forward to my sessions. I was sharing my feelings aloud, being heard and acknowledged – it really made a difference. Expressing my feelings moved them from the inside, where they would create turmoil, to the outside, where I could begin to work with them. It was powerful, effective, and cathartic.
While my symptoms of depression seemed to come on suddenly, it became apparent through counseling that things I had felt back in college, high school and even earlier, were contributing to what I was experiencing now. I realized I had suppressed or fought through feelings of low self-esteem, being judgmental of others, referred anger, etc.—or even acted out on them in ways that were not apparent to me in the moments.
Sharing my feelings helped me achieve more sustainable healing because I began to understand that the things affecting me did not stem from just one identifiable event. I was processing a progression of things from my early life and adulthood. Life is complicated, and I finally began to understand and accept that!
Now It’s Your Turn
I have enjoyed a successful career at VCA and in the veterinary profession, and a family and personal life for which I am grateful, even though my mental health challenges continue. I still utilize medication and intermittent counseling when needed. And while I’ve shared my story with family and friends, I’m now sharing with others because I’m committed to removing the stigma around mental health challenges. We need to create safe places for others to acknowledge their mental health needs and to feel comfortable asking for help. We need to be compassionate and understanding towards each other.
At VCA, we’re doing our best to provide resources and a support system for those in need because we care, and it is the right thing to do.
We hope that the combination of resources available to our Associates, such as free mental health counseling, training, and stress reduction tools, along with our support for one another, can have a positive impact on the health and well-being of our VCA family.