Over the next few months, we will be running a series called ‘Talking mental health.’ The truth is we’ve been talking about mental health in veterinarians extensively for the past five years. And by all accounts, it is helping! We’ve made huge strides addressing what in 2013 looked like a near-epidemic for suicide rates among Australian veterinarians.
But it’s essential that we keep talking. Talking to our colleagues, to our family and friends, as an industry on the whole. It’s the only way we can make a lasting difference. Each month, we will speak with a range of veterinary professionals from different backgrounds about their experiences with mental health. This month it’s Oliver Liyou.
Oliver Liyou is an equine veterinarian and suicide survivor. He has lost five colleagues to suicide. Today he is committed to raising awareness of mental health issues in the veterinary profession, speaking at a number of symposiums around the country.
What is the most important message about mental health – what do we need to work on?
We’ve got to take note of it now, and then build up our protective factors to ensure we’re prepared as a profession, and as individuals, even for people who think they’ll never be affected.
It’s interesting, the psychiatrist who did most to help me–George Blair West–has said that there’s emerging evidence that more intelligent people are at the greatest risk of mental health issues. I’m not across all the research but for some intelligent people, like vets, their minds are going all the time. You’ve got to give your mind a rest, it needs to switch off. These people need to learn how to switch off. I’ve got a neighbour who says she switches off her mind all the time! I wonder if it’s a protective mechanism?
What were the processes that helped you deal with your mental health issues?
As soon as I was back on my feet, I did a cognitive behaviour course. This fundamentally helped me. I gradually began to understand how my mind worked. I learnt to be aware of my mind running away with thoughts that don’t help. Without you being aware of what’s going on, your mind will run its own race,tell you things that you believe but aren’t true.
In the past I would have just gone along with the ride, I now ask my brain “show me some proof this is true”. If there’s no proof, which there usually isn’t, I get on with the job. Instead of feeling like the sky’s falling in, I focus on what do I need to do to get this sorted. And of course, there’s more to it than just the self-talk. There’s the biochemical, exercise, diet, etc.
As vets, we understand and can learn. We’ve got the capacity as a profession to grasp the issues, become more aware and put in place programs to help our colleagues.
Is there a benefit for those in our teams that don’t struggle with mental health issues to learn about cognitive behaviour?
The training helps people to understand how another depressed mind works. After I’d completed the cognitive behaviour course my wife developed mental health issues, and I was able to detect there was a problem and understand more about what she was going through.
For example, you learn not to take to heart what comes out of their mouths. This extends to clients as well, my theory is that many of our pedantic demanding clients may be dealing with mental health issues themselves, they drop their bundles and the key is to not take it personally.
For your own mental health, it’s important to know when it’s the depressed mind talking to you. This is particularly good for new grads to be aware of because mental health doesn’t come with a flashing light. A good friend might be acting a bit weird, this is often the case before a suicide attempt, and you want to be able to be aware of this and do something to help.
I’ve lost five vet mates through suicide, one was a mate that visited me in the hospital when I was recovering. He wondered why I’d done it, saying that he’d never think of committing suicide. Two years later he killed himself leaving behind a young family. His brain went into what I call “acopia” i.e. not coping and not talking. This hammered home for me that I wanted to do something about this.
We’re starting to build an infrastructure that helps people learn to be aware and we’re beginning to change the culture of how we work, and how we see ourselves as a profession and what being successful means. The key is developing the habit of stress followed by rest, like high-performance athletes. Traditionally we’ve been pretty poor at this, the mantra has been 'go go go', it’s been celebrated. Ironically the flow-on effect is the mess we’ve got now, no one wants to do horse work, the young grads are saying: “ah, no thanks”.
How do you maintain your life balance now?
I surround myself with good people, and I work to create a good work culture. In our practice, we’re not perfectionists, there’s no ego, no prima donnas. We own our mistakes and then move on. I don’t overdo it on the hours. I’m an equine vet but do 40 hours per week. I don’t do emergency because the industry doesn’t appreciate it, and it’s very stressful.
I focus on elective work, it’s more profitable, and there’s no bad debt. I’m much better at controlling my work and sleep, I get eight hours per night. I exercise and eat better. I’ve learnt to be kind to myself, don’t get too stressed, don’t sweat the small stuff.
I understand how my brain works now, this is the most important thing that’s come out of this. This has led to numerous benefits, I now get to go to my kids’ activities, spend time with them, something that many equine vets can never do. As a profession, we got things a bit out of whack and now we’re starting to bring the ship back around a bit.
A big mantra I live by is from Stephen Covey, something along the lines of: “life’s like a journey from Melbourne to LA, you head off in the right direction but the wind blows you off course. The trick is to not worry too much, you can head down a whole bunch of pathways but if you keep one eye on where you’re going, you’ll end up there.”
This article appeared in the December 2018 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal.