Campus sidewalk with rhododendrons blooming in the spring.

Knowing strategies for self-care is a huge part of wellbeing for everyone, including the veterinary community. For some people it's getting outside for a walk or run. Photo: springtime on the Oregon State University campus.

April 26, 2021
By Jens Odegaard 

Piper Palmgren (D.V.M. ’23) has a superpower. Active listening.

“Being an active listener is not just about the voice and the things you hear,” she said. “It's about reading body language, connecting with your eyes, and observing: how is someone behaving? What things are they excited about? What things they maybe don't want to talk about so much.”

Palmgren developed her superpower through volunteering efforts – specifically equine therapy with people with disabilities. “Sometimes these individuals are nonverbal,” Palmgren said. “So it's just one of those things that I have learned throughout the years through my own experiences and being able to work with all individuals.”

This superpower has proven especially important in Palmgren’s current volunteer role. She’s the Wellness Committee chair for the Oregon State University Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine's Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

The goal of the committee is “to provide veterinary students with resources to enter the profession with awareness of their own mental health and that of colleagues. Along with coping strategies for difficult situations and the confidence to seek out help when needed,” Palmgren said.

Active listening is one of the key ways she’s found to get her peers and colleagues to open up about their own mental health. “It's a challenging topic,” Palmgren said. “Personally, I approach this subject openly and without judgment. I use my active listening ‘superpower’ to give others the chance to share their whole story with me. Doing this allows others to feel heard. And sometimes that's all someone needs. Listening also allows me to assess their situation and provide suggestions, guidance and additional resources. I feel that's super important.”

In recent years, mental health support for the veterinary profession has taken on new importance from the national level on down. In March 2015, the American Veterinary Medical Association published the results of the first mental health survey of U.S. veterinarians. It found that one in six veterinarians had considered suicide. In 2018, the AVMA partnered with the Centers for Disease Control on a study that found “female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely, and male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely, to die from suicide as the general population.”

In response, the AVMA now offers a host of wellbeing tools and resources to help support the veterinary community. These include self-care tips, wellbeing assessments, and continuing education and crisis connections.

The Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine has followed suit.

One of the first steps was ensuring CCVM students had access to the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services without having to jump through hoops. In 2016, the college hired Alex Rowell, doctor of clinical psychology, to provide counseling services and serve as the college’s Wellness Coordinator.    

“These last four and a half years, it's been everything from people putting suicide prevention awareness, stickers on their office door, to having reminders, to outreach events, to me guest lecturing,” Rowell said. “I think it's really important to have someone embedded in the sense that students don't have to explain to me what the NAVLE [North American Veterinary Licensing Examination] is, or they don't have to explain to me which particular quarters for classes are difficult or which rotations are hard just because of the long hours. Having someone who understands that I think has tremendous benefits.”

Palmgren agrees that understanding the unique stressors that veterinary students and professionals face is crucial to supporting their mental health.

“The general public, my family, my friends, anybody who isn’t in vet med doesn’t really understand the stressors of what we go through,” Palmgren said. She sees communication from the veterinary community to be key in helping bring first awareness and then mental health support. “I think just being aware of how busy it is as a veterinary student, you know, nobody wants to make their family feel like they're not communicating or they've dropped off a little bit,” Palmgren said. “It takes communication to understand what it's like to be a veterinary student, that it is extremely busy, and that we have a crazy immense workload.”

In addition to the busyness, Rowell and Palmgren also identified the very nature of veterinary medicine as a key stressor. Unlike human medicine, veterinary staff are treating patients who can’t communicate back directly. “One of the biggest things is compassion fatigue with our patients. We will give everything that we have and never expect anything in return,” Palmgren said.

Additionally, their patients are owned by clients responsible for decisions about care, and cost of treatments is a central topic that veterinary staff and their clients must consider upfront.

“Another challenge is lack of insurance and having to work with clients that may not have the funds to treat their pet,” Palmgren said. “Even though there are sometimes things in our power that we could do, they may not be realistic because they're extremely expensive, in those cases euthanasia must then be considered.” 

To help process these realities, Palmgren finds that having a peer support group is essential, and it’s one of the key things she encourages with her work on the Wellness Committee. “Having a group of friends that you study with, who you can also reach out to when you’re having tough times is huge,” Palmgren said. “I really believe that veterinary medicine is a community, and it requires that ability to reach out and talk to one another.”

Self-assessment and self-care are also necessary. “One important thing that I can't stress enough is boundaries,” Rowell said. “How many patients can I see? How many hours can I work? What are some things that I do for self-care? For some people it’s running, some people it’s writing, some people it's reading, some people it's reaching out to friends, going to counseling or taking medication.”

To ensure that there’s time for self-care, it’s necessary to schedule it in to the week. “Just like how we go to work from nine to five.” Rowell said. “So maybe from Saturday, for example, like 12 to four, that is your protected time. Treating it as if you're seeing patients; you can't just bail on seeing a patient last minute. So again, having that for your own self.”

“I think one of the biggest things that I learned first year was to take time, to check in with myself, to see how I'm doing,” Palmgren added. “I know that one of the key things I recognize when I'm starting to struggle is I stop prepping good meals for myself – I find myself eating more fast food or easy takeout things. That’s one of my signals to myself that maybe I need to assess and reprioritize, because cooking is one of the things that relieves stress for me and it’s fun.”

Palmgren encourages everyone to get to know themselves so that when things that bring joy, happiness and wellbeing start to “fall to the wayside, you know, ‘Oh, hey, something's going on here. I need to address this before it becomes a bigger issue.’”

In addition to peer support and self-awareness and care, seminars, resources and events are also crucial to individual and community veterinary wellbeing. Rowell and Palmgren, along with the rest of the Wellness Committee, provide these on an ongoing basis. For example, Rowell sends a weekly Wellness Wednesday email with self-care tips and details on upcoming wellbeing opportunities.

Other offerings require more flexibility. “I have some great colleagues. One in particular, Hilary Ann Lakin, teaches yoga classes for us. And those are open to not only the students, but the faculty and staff as well,” Palmgren said. During COVID-19 times these have been offered virtually. “We love to get the faculty, and staff and everybody involved because it takes a village.”

“It's about the community as a whole. Your personal wellness is impacted by the people you're around and the team that you work with,” Palmgren said. “When I think of Oregon State and the CCVM program, I think of openness, compassion and the willingness to learn from each other.” 

Palmgren hopes that her future work in veterinary medicine will revolve around this community wellbeing that animal companionship and care brings, not just to veterinarians, but to everyone.  

“I have this dream in my head of the perfect setup for myself in the future. It's the combination between rehabilitation for animals as well as rehabilitation for humans. It's a wonderland of people being able to interact with animals in a positive way and animals being able to interact with humans in a positive way,” Palmgren said. “I think that really is the foundation of why veterinary medicine is always going to be needed and why we'll always be around, because there's always that human-animal bond and that human-animal connection.”

Growing up, Palmgren spent hours with her horse Dakota (right). Many of them “massaging his legs to improve circulation” after lameness injuries, she said. “I felt like it was so therapeutic for me, as much as it was therapeutic for him. You don't have to be a veterinarian to help an animal – go up, pet them or comb their hair or something like that. It'll give just as much to you in your heart as it will give to the animal.”