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Wellness is a growing part of the veterinary profession. Photo: itstockphoto.com.

Workshops bring mental health to forefront

While animals are usually the focus at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM), students, faculty and staff have also been learning about human health at the college’s new Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) workshops.

“The workshops were a mechanism for people to become better informed about mental health, mental health problems and mental illness,” explains Erin Wasson, the WCVM’s veterinary social worker. “They were also an opportunity to talk about the available resources and work toward creating a culture around the WCVM where all of us support one another.”

Wasson and Paige Links, student services manager at the college, completed the Canadian Mental Health Commission’s facilitator training so they could teach the workshop’s curriculum that covers topics such as substance use disorders, suicide prevention, anxiety and mood disorders, and psychotic disorders.

Wasson and Links offered four workshops during the 2016-17 school year, and participants have included a mix of WCVM students, faculty and staff as well as members of the university’s protective services. During the two-day sessions, Wasson and Links teach mental health first aid and give participants the confidence to intervene and support people experiencing a mental health problem or mental health crisis in their lives.

Fourth-year veterinary student Tim Donihee attended the first session offered in November 2016. He liked that it provided simple, pragmatic tools and strategies for checking to see if a person was okay and then directing them to resource people who could point them toward a healthy path.

“I think the biggest benefit of the workshop was the increased awareness that you don’t know what other people are going through,” says Donihee, the former president of the Western Canadian Veterinary Students’ Association (WCVSA). “It’s just about taking the time to think about other people, saying a kind word or making sure that someone is okay when they seem upset.”

As a WCVM student, Donihee has experienced the pressures of being part of a diverse group of students who are highly driven for success. While constantly trying to keep up with the fast-paced veterinary program, he’s often found it hard to take time to care for himself.

“We’re all trying to be successful, but it’s not possible to live up to the expectations that we have for ourselves. There’s just so much to learn, and you can’t know it all. I honestly think that’s a big part of the experience – learning that you’re not always going to be able to do everything. But it’s a difficult lesson to learn in the midst of trying to be the best professional you can be.”

Donihee thinks that lesson will help him after graduation. As a veterinary professional, he knows that he’ll face the pressure to perform and restore animals’ health while dealing with anxious clients whose feelings — and often their livelihoods — are invested in their animals.

Links first learned about the MHFA workshops two years ago. She signed up for one in hopes it would help with her day-to-day job – she often meets with students who are struggling academically or personally. Since then she’s seen a dramatic increase in students needing help, and she’s optimistic the training will result in more support for them within the WCVM community.

Links points out that the college’s students come from all over the western provinces and are often trying to cope with various pressures while separated from the family, friends and agencies they’ve relied upon in the past. While she expects the workshops will enhance support for students, she emphasizes that the WCVM faculty and staff need assistance as well.

“The faculty and veterinarians and staff are exactly the same as the students,” says Links. “They’re high achievers, they don’t say no, and they put their all into everything.”

Since another of Links’ roles is to accommodate students who may require extra time or private space for exams, she’s hopeful that the workshops will help to reduce the stigma associated with disabilities and mental health problems.

For Wasson, one of the workshops’ major benefits was the chance for participants to get to know one other as well as her and Links. She hopes to see a network of mental health first aiders at the college who can work together to ensure that people get help when they need it. She’s also gratified that the workshops have invigorated people to take on mental health as a cause and to advocate for better mental wellness.

For example, after attending the MHFA workshop, Donihee pitched in to help a group of veterinary students organize the WCVM’s first Mental Health Week that included events aimed at building a resilient veterinary community.

Wasson appreciates the influence of agencies such as the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and American Veterinary Medical Association that advocate wellness and mental health in the profession. In addition, the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association has approved non-scientific continuing education credits for workshop participants.

She also emphasizes the positive impact of having support from the WCVM: the college paid for Wasson and Links’ leadership training and are footing the bill for all of the workshops. By championing this initiative, the college is removing many of the barriers that prevent people from getting mental health first aid training.

“Together we can create a safe community here, and I’m hoping that when our students leave, they’ll take a leadership role in their clinics so this movement has some steam out in the world,” says Wasson. “And hopefully, we’ll start to see a culture shift where looking after ourselves becomes just as important and just as ethical as looking after our clients and our patients.”

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