Marci Glidden Savage
Mental health and physical health are not mutually exclusive. Both are equally important to our overall well-being. For example, chronic physical pain can lead to depression and anxiety, and sustained mental stress can wreak havoc on the digestive system, disrupt sleep patterns and compromise the immune system. So, why do we keep missing the mark on such a vital topic?
Avoidance Starts Young
From an early age, we learn to treat our physical health quickly and mostly ignore our emotions and feelings. When we were toddlers, our scrapes and bruises were fixed with warm water, soap, a little antibiotic ointment, a Band-Aid and three little words, “You’ll be OK.” When our beloved pet died, we often heard, “Don’t worry, you’ll get another.” Our first high school breakup was smoothed over with, “You’ll find someone else. There are plenty of fish in the sea.” We lost a job and heard, “Don’t worry, you’ll find something much better.” We learned to silence our emotional pain with replacements.
Have you ever diagrammed your emotional history from your first memory to the present? I attended a widow’s retreat facilitated by a grief specialist. In one of the exercises, I was asked to do a loss history graph to discover a correlation between early childhood patterns about loss and how I process it today. Drawing a chronological line across the width of the paper, I listed significant events in my life, such as a grandparent’s death, mom and dad’s divorce, losing a job, moving, marriage, my child’s birth and my husband’s death. Then, under each significant event, I wrote a few words that reminded me of how I felt at the time, who was there to talk to me about the event, and if others around me understood my needs or gave me the necessary time to process the event. Words like “scared,” “confused,” “worried,” “fearful,” “rejected,” “powerless,” “embarrassed” and “heartbroken” were repeated and scattered about the paper. A pattern quickly and vividly emerged. The lack of attention to my mental health by those around me and myself was apparent.
We learn early on to place our mental health on the back burner. Remember how important physical fitness was in elementary, middle and high school? In 1956, President Eisenhower founded the President’s Council on Youth Fitness to educate Americans on the importance of physical activity and good nutrition to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The President’s Council exists today, through 13 administrations, but without a focus on mental health.
The Physical Side of Thoughts
Thoughts form in our brain and its neuron forest. Pleasant thoughts cause the secretion of chemicals like serotonin and dopamine, giving us a sense of well-being. Conversely, stressful thoughts cause the secretion of adrenaline, cortisol and histamines, creating a feeling of insecurity or dread. Over time, long-term activation of the stress response system puts you at risk of physical consequences. Among them:
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Tension and migraine headaches.
- Muscle tension and pain.
- Heart disease, heart attack, high blood pressure and stroke.
- Insomnia and sleep apnea.
The Psychological Side of Thoughts
Depression affects all aspects of a person’s life. Long-term activation of the stress response system also impacts how we behave and feel. Someone who never suffered major depression might not understand how a person with it feels. And people suffering from depression are often reluctant to speak up because of the social stigmas surrounding mental illnesses. Instead, they suffer in silence, living a double life. They exert the physical energy to present a socially acceptable outer experience, but the mental strength needed to battle the illness no one sees is depleted.
Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the United States. According to a 2017 poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association, about 40 million U.S. adults — roughly 18% of the population — had an anxiety disorder. Moreover, nearly half of all people diagnosed with depression have an anxiety disorder. When anxiety and depression are combined, anxiety produces constant worry and fear, while depression causes despair and hopelessness. Without treatment, depression and anxiety can be a deadly combo.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health:
- Almost 1 in 5 U.S. adults lives with mental illness each year.
- 11% of men and nearly 21% of women will suffer from major depression in their lifetime.
According to the World Health Organization:
- 1 billion people globally suffer from depression.
- Depression was predicted to be the second-leading cause of disability globally, just behind cardiovascular disease, by 2020.
- The Lancet Commission reported that mental disorders are rising in every country and will cost the global economy $16 trillion annually by 2030.
- The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention stated that the No. 1 cause of suicide is untreated depression.
Closer to Home
Those of us with four-legged family members depend on veterinarians to provide every form of medical care, from routine exams and vaccinations to 24/7 emergency care, end-of-life services and everything in between. But unfortunately, many pet owners aren’t privy to the national shortage of veterinarians and veterinary technicians, the difficulty they have balancing work and home life, their crippling school debt, their compassion fatigue, and the social media attacks levied by angry clients.
According to Merck Animal Health’s 2020 Veterinarian Wellbeing Study:
- Veterinarians were twice as likely as the general population to think about killing themselves.
- Well-being was lowest among younger veterinarians.
- Veterinarians exhibited higher levels of burnout than physicians.
- 52% of veterinarians could not recommend a career in veterinary medicine.
Prioritize Your Mental Health
Mental health affects the way you think, your mood and your behavior and can either enhance or impair your personal and professional life. Ignoring your mental health is detrimental to you, your family and friends, your co-workers and your patients.
Stop reading. Grab a piece of paper and write, “I will accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement and protection of my mental health, just as I solemnly swore to protect animal health and welfare.” Tape the paper where you will see it every day — in your car, on your computer, near the coffee pot or on the bathroom mirror. Start small. Try to commit 10 to 15 minutes a day of mental health time. Take a walk, listen to music, read, write in a gratitude journal. Do whatever elevates your mood and puts a smile on your face.
Treat yourself with the same dignity and care you treat your patients. You can, and you must. Ignoring your mental health is harmful and, in some cases, deadly.
A GO-TO SOURCE
After the 2014 death by suicide of Dr. Sophia Yin, the nonprofit organization Not One More Vet was founded by another veterinarian, Dr. Nicole McArthur. Not One More Vet (nomv.org) addresses well-being in veterinary medicine through:
- Evidence-based peer support.
- Comprehensive programs focused on wellness.
- Grant programs for individuals and veterinary clinics experiencing a crisis.
- Mentorship and best-practices programs.
The percentage of U.S. adults with mental illness WHO received treatment in 2020, ACCORDING TO THE National Alliance on Mental Illness