CVM encouraging better mental health wellness among its students, faculty and staff

The College of Veterinary Medicine is providing its students with better access to mental health care, and, providing students, faculty and staff with better access to other mental health resources. The promotion of greater mental health wellness is important because health care professions, including the veterinary profession, are among those cited as having the highest rates of suicide and depression.

A 2014 survey completed by more than 10,000 practicing veterinarians (about 69 percent of whom are small animal practitioners) found that 14.4 percent of men and 19.1 percent of women have considered suicide since graduation, which is three times the U.S. national mean. The survey also found that 1.1 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women in the profession have attempted suicide since veterinary school, which is below the national mean (the mean for attempts is 1.6 percent for men and 3.0 percent for women). The anonymous, online survey was made available to veterinarians by researchers from the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Auburn University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results were published by CDC in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of Feb. 13, 2015 (tinyurl.com/jovvugc). The goal of the survey, investigators said, was to heighten awareness that veterinarians have a high prevalence of mental illness and that resources are available to those who need help.

The CVM’s initiatives began during the last academic year and will continue going forward. For several years, the College’s Office for Academic Affairs has had a cooperative arrangement with the University Health Center’s Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS) to provide DVM students with access to the Center’s services, explained Dr. Scott Brown, associate dean for academic affairs. “This past year (academic year 2015 – 2016), we made these services available to graduate students, including interns and residents in the UGA Veterinary Teaching Hospital,” he said.  

During the last academic year, the CVM embedded Licensed Professional Counselor Stevie Stigler, from CAPS, into its program to improve student access to CAPS services. Stigler is available to students at both the main CVM campus and the Veterinary Medical Center campus, or through the main CAPS office, throughout the week to give them the support they need in the manner most expedient to their hectic schedules. Stigler’s services are free to all DVM and graduate students enrolled at the CVM. (Stigler’s counseling services are currently not available to faculty or staff. CVM students who want to talk to Stigler may email her at sstigler@uga.edu.) 

“Convenience and accessibility for these students is key,” Stigler said. “I wholeheartedly believe that it’s needed, and it has made a difference for these students as far as seeking therapy goes.”

Having a CAPS counselor embedded within a school program is rare at the University of Georgia. Currently, only the CVM and the UGA Athletic Association offer this service to their students. This ensures that students may be seen by a CAPS counselor beyond the short-term care to which students in other programs are restricted.

“The reason for that is you might need therapy throughout your four years here,” said Stigler. “If I give you 12 sessions and then send you into the community, that defeats the purpose of why I’m here.”

The students, themselves, are also getting involved in promoting wellness to their peers. In fall 2015, members of the CVM’s Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Wellness Committee worked with Stigler and Dr. Kaori Sakamoto, an associate professor in the Department of Pathology, to host a Veterinary Wellness Month. “We held one activity each week, that included a panel discussion about stress management, with practicing veterinarians from a variety of areas, such as the USDA, academia, equine medicine, small animal medicine, and Banfield,” said Sakamoto. “We also held a social evening of painting at ARTini’s, an art studio and lounge in Athens; a lecture on recognizing signs of stress and anxiety, from Alicia Carter, MSW, LMSW, who is on the CAPS staff; and, we had a swing dance lesson taught by Dr. Erik Hofmeister, an associate professor of anesthesiology at the CVM.”

Following the momentum gained during the month-long wellness campaign, Stigler and Sakamoto launched the UGA CVM Wellness Group, a Facebook page open to anyone. The page contains inspirational messages, as well as links to stories about wellness and mental health. 

There is also a private Facebook page for members of the veterinary community called “Not One More Vet,” which launched in 2014. “That was started after the tragic suicide of Dr. Sophia Yin, who was a noted veterinary behaviorist,” said Sakamoto. “That really was a cry for help in the community; we realized that we need to pay more attention to this problem. It’s only open to vets, and it’s a safe place for people to be able to just vent, ask for help or reach out to others.” (To join this private community, message Dr. Sakamoto at kaoris@uga.edu.) 

To give wellness a physical presence in our community, during this last academic year, a bulletin board located across from the student mailboxes on the main floor of the main CVM building became a daily reminder to students about the importance of overall wellness care. The board, maintained by Stigler, contains everything from adult coloring pages to tip sheets listing ideas for self-care.

“Exercise not only benefits your physical self, but your mental health as well,” noted Stigler. “Exercise makes you feel good because it releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that improve your mood. It provides you with an outlet for your emotions verses allowing your emotions to stay pent up and then manifest in negative ways. There are different types of exercise, including yoga, which are beneficial for your mental health because they improve present moment awareness. Other self-care activities that can be used to combat stress and promote wellness are to read, create something, meditation, learn something new, laugh, listen to favorite music, or pet an animal.”

Since students are not the only ones who need access to mental health care and resources, Sakamoto and Stigler worked together to create the Bulldawg Support Network (BSN), which launched in February and is available to everyone in the CVM community at no charge. The BSN is based on a similar program that Sakamoto participated in as a graduate student at Cornell University. BSN’s strength is in voluntary peer support from throughout all ranks of the CVM—from department heads and administrators to research personnel, to administrative associates and students. More than four dozen individuals voluntarily underwent basic training to help them recognize the signs of depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Members of the BSN can be a compassionate listening ear and know where to direct individuals when more-extensive mental health services may be necessary.

Just being a good listener can go a long way toward providing support when someone needs a little human kindness and understanding. “Having someone who’s actually in your peer group, who is trained in recognizing signs of stress or anxiety, or even suicidal behavior, and who understands what the other person is going through, helps,” said Sakamoto.

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