by Marie Holowaychuk
I remember when I was an assistant professor at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College and struggling to maintain my mental health. I have a longstanding history of depression and anxiety and after just four years on faculty I was experiencing burnout. This was long before my foray into veterinary wellbeing and I did not know or practice the tools I use today such as consistent counseling, meditation, mindfulness, and routine self-care. I was debating whether to leave my faculty job or take a leave of absence to restore my mental health.
I clearly recall a conversation with human resources and their recommendation to consider the latter option. They explained that the reason for my leave would be confidential and that with a doctor’s note that I could qualify for a period of weeks to months of paid leave to focus on my mental health. They said that it would be like a person taking leave for chemotherapy, recovery from surgery, or another physical health concern.
I was surprised to hear this option being presented to me and briefly considered whether or not this was something I could do. I knew that my mental health was poor and I needed some time away from work to address it head-on, but was taking a health leave appropriate? I struggled with this for months and ultimately gave my resignation opting to leave the job altogether rather than take a leave that would create questions (and potentially backlash) upon my return.
Looking back on this now, I recognize fully that it was the stigma around mental illness and health leave that contributed to my hesitation and ultimately resulted in my resignation.Like many other veterinarians I have spoken to, I believed that others would not understand if I needed to take time off to tend to my mental health, or worse, they might be angry or punish me upon my return.
The human resources representative who was advising me argued that the leave was justified (according to my medical history and work-related concerns) and that the cause would be kept confidential. But I couldn’t help wondering…won’t people assume, guess, or eventually find out? And when they do will they see me as a lesser colleague, mentor, or professor?
These feelings are not unique to me and occur commonly amongs veterinary professionals whom I speak to, who are considering a health leave for reasons of mental illness, burnout, or compassion fatigue. And it is not surprising considering the findings of a recent study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which showed that 47.3% of surveyed veterinarians had a negative attitude toward social support, meaning they somewhat or strongly disagreed that people are generally caring and sympathetic to people with mental illness.
When I shared those statistics recently with a group of veterinary practice managers who I was facilitating a workshop for they were shocked. They asked me how it could be that so many veterinarians have such a prominent stigma when it comes to mental illness?
I said that the answer is simple. As long as veterinarians continue to hide their mental illness, avoid speaking about burnout, or resist admitting feelings of compassion fatigue, the stigma will continue. In the words of Brene Brown, “shame cannot survive being spoken”. I believe that the stigma is perpetuated by the shame that stems from keeping these issues secret and not speaking about them openly.
After my experience with the group of veterinary practice managers and the discussion that ensued, I found myself wishing that we lived in a world where people do not feel a need to “hide” their mental illness. That similar to how those with cancer might share their diagnosis and need for time off for chemotherapy and radiation treatments, those with mental illness could do the same.
Years ago, when I was having my own personal struggles, being open about them and knowing that others would embrace them just as they would a person undergoing surgery or treatment for cancer, might have led me to choose differently. I genuinely hope that someday we can be open and transparent in saying “I have depression and burnout and am taking a leave for treatment, so that I can come back able to fulfill the duties of my role better than before”. No need for conjecture, co-worker whispering, or growing grudges regarding the reason for the leave and the increased workload it’s left on those behind.
Wouldn’t that be nice?