"The most important thing is to turn to each other. Understand there's no shame in struggling"
Naomi Bickley is a clinical psychologist and leadership coach. She has worked in the field for over 22 years, including 18 years running her own practice. For the past 9 years, she has worked with Murdoch University’s Veterinary School, codesigning and cofacilitating its annual “Veterinary Professional Life” camp.
In 2017 the Veterinary Surgeon’s Board of Western Australia appointed her their clinical psychologist of choice. Naomi recently ran wellness workshops at the 2018 AVA Annual Conference.
For those who aren’t fully aware, what does a clinical psychologist do?
We work with people who have anxiety, depression, stress, relationship issues. These are the most common areas and we see people with a range of severity, from mild to severe.
The way patients come to us is they’re most often referred from their GP. We don’t prescribe medications, we focus on talking therapies. In other words, we converse with patients in order to help solve their conditions.
What is it about vets that has drawn you to work so closely with the profession?
I work with a lot of professional groups and I can say that veterinarians are a very caring group. They’re caring of each other which is remarkable, so much so that Murdoch Uni has created a core unit called Veterinary Professional Life which is designed to help veterinary students understand and prepare to look after their own mental health and that of their colleagues. I haven’t seen this in any other professional group. It’s really a very special thing.
Have you seen any benefits of the structured approach at Murdoch for people when they graduate?
It’s difficult to attribute it solely to the structured program but I have noticed that it’s more acceptable to see a psychologist. This may be also due to other programs like the AVA’s mentor program and general awareness of the benefits of seeing a mental health professional.
Some of the people we have spoken to have contributed poor mental health in veterinarians to such issues as long hours, low pay, compassion fatigue. In your experience what are the pressure points for those in the profession?
It seems to be multi-faceted. Yes, the long hours play a role but it’s the long hours coupled with the difficulty saying “no”. Some veterinarians feel a compulsion to put that animal first, as the highest priority. I do it myself. I know that on those days where I’m committed to doing paperwork, I’ll drop what I’m doing to help someone. The point is that I’m also able to say “stuff it I’m going home”.
When I’m working with veterinarians, we often find that a problem that starts with thoughts that cause anxiety and depression have a deeper dialogue.
There’s something more fundamental going on that’s feeding these feelings. For veterinarians that find it hard to say no to longer hours, the sort of deeper issues are usually fear; fear of what others think, fear of failure, not being good enough. This is a common finding. When our self-worth is wrapped up in what people think of us, it’s dangerous.
Without help, veterinarians will often work harder to stop the feelings, but end up fueling it, making it worse. I’m seeing the impact of social media particularly on veterinarians and people in veterinary clinics. For people not feeling good about themselves, social media intensifies the issues.
For example, a clinic gets a person a bit upset, they leave one negative comment, then the team worries about that one comment – despite having many good comments from other clients.
Social media is putting fuel into the problem for people with mental health issues. While the person builds a sense of self-worth, the solution is to get off social media if possible, or if you need to use it, use a publicist or third party to manage the posts.
What message do you have for those reading this article, who might be struggling and don’t know where to turn?
This is a big question, the most important thing is to turn to each other. Understand there’s no shame in struggling. Then, turn to a psychologist, there’s no shame in this. Even in remote areas, there are wonderful websites that are helpful.
Ask your friend, ask your GP, get a few names, then call them up, have a phone chat to get a sense of comfort with them. It’s Ok to choose a psychologist that you like rather than taking the first one you come across.
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This article appeared in the January/February 2019 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal