Fall 2018

Caring for the Caregivers

Wellness programs surge on campus to help students, faculty, and staff weather the demands of veterinary practice and training.

By Genevieve Rajewski

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Student wellness adviser Lynn Roy and Makoto Sakomoto, V19, cofounder of the student-led Cummings Thrive group. Photo: Anna Miller

Veterinarians and veterinary students tend to work under tremendous pressure, which takes a toll. As this magazine reported in 2016, mental-health surveys reveal high rates of self-reported stress, depression, and thoughts of suicide. The reasons are many: a professional culture of high caseloads and inadequate work-life balance, grief related to animal deaths, and financial pressures from student debt and clients’ inability to pay for needed care. A recent study by Merck Animal Health found that psychological distress continues today, as does a cultural stigma about discussing mental-health challenges.

Fortunately, on the Grafton campus, students, faculty, staff, and donors are working to open lines of communication and support—and finding ways to keep the importance of well-being front and center. Here are three of Cummings School’s latest wellness initiatives, supported in part by generous gifts from Elaine Arthur (a longtime Cummings School donor and volunteer), two anonymous donors, and a successful Tufts crowdfunding initiative.

Cummings Thrive

Anika Farina, V18, and Makoto Sakamoto, V19, both know what it’s like to struggle mentally and emotionally during veterinary school. But after each attended the weeklong Veterinary Leadership Experience—an annual program designed to offer strategies for improving health and resilience—they united to bring a similar experience to the Grafton campus. Since September 2017, the student-led Cummings Thrive workshop has introduced participants to important concepts such as resilience, conflict management, communication, and self-awareness, amplifying topics touched on in Cummings School’s orientation program. “Veterinary school is so intense and overwhelming that we all can forget to take care of ourselves after a few months,” Sakamoto said.

About thirty-five students, more than a third of a veterinary class, attended each ninety-minute session last year, which is now also supported by a Cummings Thrive Facebook group and email listserv to foster ongoing dialogue. “If we acknowledge that this can be hard, we will get through it,” said Farina, who with Sakamoto received a 2018 Presidential Award for Civic Life from Tufts for developing the program. “We are all here to help each other—and that’s how we are going to be better doctors in the future.”

Student Wellness Adviser

In April, Cummings School welcomed Lynn Roy as its first student wellness adviser. Roy, a practicing veterinarian for more than three decades, has helped teach ethics at Cummings School for many years. So, she said, “I’ve experienced many of the challenges that students face on a daily basis.” She hopes to provide a sympathetic ear and helpful perspective on everything from the rigors of school, to the demands of clinics—where a veterinarian might have three euthanasia cases in one day—to trying to balance clinic duties with those of a parent and spouse.

In her new role, Roy will advise and support individual students and groups on wellness-related challenges and guide them to support services on campus and in the surrounding community. She coordinates the school’s existing wellness programs, partnering with and assisting campus groups and initiatives such as Cummings Thrive, Tufts Veterinary Council on Diversity, SAVMA’s Wellness Committee, and the Healer’s Art selective, which is offered to first- and second-year veterinary students to teach coping strategies for the profession’s mental-health and well-being pressures.

Roy is also developing new wellness-related offerings for students, including a newsletter that includes student-requested easy recipes for healthy eating, and monthly workshops on successful study strategies and other life skills. At students’ request, she has already started bringing nonveterinary-related activities to the campus center to encourage healthy breaks. For example, a recent sunny day found students tossing Frisbees on the campus center lawn, while cooler weather saw students chatting and doodling in stress-relieving coloring books designed for adults.

Wellness in the Workplace

Designed specifically for Cummings School’s faculty, veterinary technicians, and other staff, the new Wellness in the Workplace program seeks to relieve stress, promote positivity, and improve communication within Tufts’ animal hospitals. The three-month series includes one sixty-minute seminar and three hourlong workshops a month to explore different ways to boost mental well-being, whether it’s through cognitive reframing, doing gratitude journaling, or learning to better navigate tough conversations.

Eighty-five employees have participated in the program since its 2017 launch. The feedback has been very positive: Participants reported significant improvement in their ability to bounce back from challenges, handle stressful situations, communicate effectively, and engage in activities that support their health and well-being, said hospital director Virginia Rentko. The course was developed and is run collaboratively by Janet Fontana, a registered nurse and health coach at Tufts’ Marathon Health Wellness Center; Tufts Employee Assistance Program; certified life coach and client services manager Elizabeth Timlege, of the Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals; and Cummings Veterinary Medical Center veterinary social worker Eric Richman.

“Although there’s growing awareness of the importance of wellness in veterinary medicine, it can still be a huge challenge getting faculty to practice what they preach given that they’re all so busy and stretched thin,” said Associate Professor Jennifer Graham, head of the zoological companion animal medicine service. “Not only was the content of this series very helpful in finding small ways to make meaningful changes at work and home, I appreciated that I could participate even while on clinics.”

To learn more about Cummings School’s wellness programs, and how you can contribute, please visit vetsites.tufts.edu/wellness

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