Pawsitive Practice co-ordinator Rebecca Jackson. Photo: Myrna MaDonald.

Pawsitive Practice helps students de-stress

Dressed in sarongs and sandals, a group of veterinary students spend their lunch hour practising their tropical dance moves and relaxing. There's not an animal in sight nor any talk about anatomy, physiology or clinical rotations. For the moment, dancing is all that matters to these students.

By Lynne Gunville
It's not what you expect to see and hear during a typical lunch break at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, but it's all part of Pawsitive Practice — an innovative initiative aimed at promoting student wellness.

"Veterinary students are typically studious, hardworking individuals who have very little time to get exercise or just refrain from studying," explains Rebecca Jackson, the college's first elected Pawsitive Practice co-ordinator.

The newly established position, which operates within the Western Canadian Veterinary Students' Association (WCVSA), was created in response to recent disturbing statistics that drew attention to the alarmingly high suicide rate found in the veterinary profession — a rate that bypasses even traditional high-stress occupations such as flight management.

"That information started a huge reaction in the veterinary community," says Jackson, who will be in her fourth and final year of veterinary medicine this fall. "The national and provincial veterinary organizations are really getting involved in addressing the issues, and Pawsitive Practice is our response to this information at the student level."

One of Jackson's first steps as co-ordinator was conducting a survey of the students to get a general idea of what they needed, what they valued and how they fared at managing stress. Survey responses also generated ideas for possible activities, programs and solutions to some of the students' typical problems.

Jackson's next step was to create a Facebook page that was open only to WCVM students. It provided them with the opportunity to exchange information and ideas on a variety of topics ranging from mental health issues to social events taking place in Saskatoon.

For those without Facebook access, Jackson constructed a Pawsitive Practice message board that was organized into four sections – stress, community, activity and nutrition. She encouraged people to post information about anything they wanted such as healthy social activities, child care information and community events.

One of Pawsitive Practice's first events was a mindfulness workshop – a three-hour crash course in mindfulness training – that was directed by Dr. Trisha Dowling from the WCVM's Department of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences. Dowling has received awards in recognition and support of her work on Mindful Veterinary Practice, a popular third-year elective course that encourages life balance and self-care.

"Dr. Dowling has been incredible," says Jackson. "She was heavily involved in developing this position, and I've worked very closely with her. Whenever I have a question or need a contact, I go straight to her. She's been my go-to person."

As awareness has grown, Jackson has developed numerous contacts, including people and agencies from outside as well as within the University of Saskatchewan. And with their help, she has tried to provide a variety of activities and opportunities for students and staff.

For example, Jackson teamed up with Odette Blankvoort, the WCVSA's sustainability co-ordinator, to sponsor a hugely successful "swap-til-you-drop" event. It encouraged people to declutter and recycle as they brought in the items they no longer used and exchanged them for things that they needed.

Another project, which was organized by WCVM large animal internist Dr. Chris Clark, was the inaugural "Women of the Round Table." The event gave fourth-year female students the chance to interact with a panel of female veterinarians and talk about topics relating to the challenges that women face in the profession. Jackson and Clark hope to work together and make this an annual event as part of Pawsitive Practice.

Throughout her term as co-ordinator, Jackson has worked diligently to facilitate events that have ranged from workshops to Polynesian dancing and Zumba classes. She's found that one of the biggest challenges is dealing with the extremely diverse needs of the students and finding activities that work for the majority of people.

For next year, the WCVSA has followed Jackson's recommendation that the new Pawsitive Practice co-ordinator, Kristin Wiebe, be joined by first- and second-year representatives who can share the workload.

With the school year ending, Jackson is now looking forward to completing exams and starting her summer position in the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre's Small Animal Clinic.

As she looks back on the past year, she's gratified that the Pawsitive Practice initiative has brought people together and has made them aware that they're not alone and that everyone has problems.

"We all struggle. We all find moments when we're worn down and we just feel broken and exhausted and overwhelmed. It's a really common thing and it has less to do with the person and a lot to do with the pressures we all are under," says Jackson.

"But you can't lose yourself, and you need to use the resources that are here. We have an incredible group of people here in the college — students, faculty and staff, and it's so refreshing to find people who care."