Ontario Veterinary College THRIVE – Friday Focus #4


I only met Shannon because of blogging; she has her own here. We would otherwise have no reason to know each other. I am in the United States, and she is in Canada. But now that I know her, I know that she is a force to be reckoned in the battle against poor mental health in the veterinary profession. It is an honor to have her share what is going on at her school, Ontario Veterinary College, in Guelph, Canada. Enjoy, and think about what she can teach you:


My name is Shannon Finn, and this past fall I founded the first student club for mental health and wellness at the Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Canada. The club is called “OVC THRIVE” and THRIVE stands for “Teaching Healthy Resilience in the Veterinary Environment,” and was founded on 3 main goals:

  • To promote an open and accepting culture surrounding mental health
  • To encourage students to prioritize self-care
  • To provide tangible resources for students to improve resilience

Starting out was daunting! It’s a bit intimidating to have a clean slate, and I wanted to do things really well the first time around (as most type A students do), and so I reached out to the Ross University and the UC Davis wellness clubs for input on what worked well for them! The things being done by these students were really inspiring to me, and so I went forward with my plans. I worked all summer for the newly formed research group at OVC – the AWAR2E team (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Research and Education), and all five members agreed to be faculty advisors for the club.

One of the most helpful things I did at the beginning, was make connections with the existing resources. I don’t know if it’s like this at all schools, but at OVC, the veterinary college feels very “separate” from the rest of the University of Guelph, even though it’s just across the road. Once I had some details for THRIVE firmed up, I scheduled a meeting with the head of the UofG’s Wellness Education Centre, and she was so instrumental with helping me find funding for activities and including me on some of the campus wide mental health committees. I’ve met so many awesome people because of this, and now the veterinary college is being more included in the discussion about mental health at our campus.

OVC has been very good at recognizing that there is a problem with mental health in our field and at our school. I think everyone saw it as a problem simmering beneath the surface, and only saw it bubble up during high periods of stress (exams) when everyone is unable to keep their cool anymore. We also didn’t really have much in terms of a movement from the student level, and despite all the great advice and information coming from our administration, it wasn’t really sinking in with the students.

Once the school year came around, many students were aware that THRIVE existed – we made social media pages and created Wellness Carts (full of games and colouring and other fun things) that popped up around school. On Club Days (2 days near the beginning of the year where students can sign up for clubs), I set up my board and put a little “for free!” sign indicating that there was no cost to sign up, and I was shocked that some people just avoided my table! I think this was the first time I really experienced the stigma about this topic. We did manage to get a fair amount of students sign up, and in the end it didn’t really matter too much because our events were made for everyone to participate in.

Fast forward to November, and I had a really great executive committee put together. We had a few initial meetings and there was so much enthusiasm about possible events that we all took a breath at the end of one meeting and said “Maybe we should just make a THRIVE Week.” We reconvened, and then the next meeting we picked the date (the week of January 30th), picked our tentative schedule of events, and got to work making sponsorship proposals. We had a tight timeline of about 2 months to put everything together and raise funds, but it’s a true testament to the executive team that they felt we could do it (and do it well!) and put in the time to make it happen.

I’ve attached the schedule of events that we had for Let’s THRIVE Week – I won’t go into detail about each event (I could go on for days!) but feel free to contact me if you have any questions about Let’s THRIVE Week that I don’t answer here (sfinn@mail.uoguelph.ca). I thought the best way to discuss this week was to go back to our 3 goals, and talk a bit about how certain events really helped us achieve those.

Providing tangible resources for improving resilience:

We wanted to provide all students with something they could physically take away and use, but we also wanted to make sure everything in Let’s THRIVE Week was free – so here’s a big thank you to OVC and OVC Pet Trust for giving us such generous sponsorship.

I was put in contact with a Masters student from a nearby university who had created a mental health “first aid kit” start-up company called PASS Inc. She had this amazing product in her kits, which are these flashcards that have “tweet-length” counselling advice (which were all evidence-based too!) as well as resource hotlines. We included these in our kits, as well as a card for LGBTQ+ specific, and University of Guelph specific resources, a pen, and a pad of paper (see picture). We got sponsorship for kits for every DVM student and also the teaching hospital interns, and the executive put them all together.

We have tests on Monday morning, and so we handed out these kits after the tests to all the students. They were extremely well-received! It was a great feeling to provide students with something that was actually useful – a lot of people said they thought the flashcards would be silly, but once they looked at them, they found it actually super helpful. I’ve seen so many people using their pens and notepads too!
We also wanted to include the student clubs at OVC that had values similar to ours – that is, they try to improve student life outside of improving technical skills and knowledge about veterinary medicine. These clubs included the OVC Christian Vet Fellowship, the OVC Business Club, and the OVC Student Chapter of the Lesbian and Gay Veterinary Medical Association (SCLGVMA). The SCLGVMA created the LGBTQ+ resource card for the kits, and all of the clubs, as well as the OVC Peer Helpers contributed really cool designs for buttons that we handed out at events. This was another thing that students could take and wear to display their support of Let’s THRIVE Week and mental health.

Encourage students to prioritize self-care:

Students know that self-care is important. The disconnect is the fact that we rarely actually do it. We tried to have good nurturing, stress-relieving events like Yoga, Paint Night, and Curling to incorporate some creativity, mindfulness and physical activity. These all had nothing to do with vet school – they were just fun! We got a really good turnout at all of them.

My favourite event that we did to encourage self-care was the “I am Also” campaign. One of the things I learned from being involved in the academic mental health world this summer was that having diverse interests and taking the time to look at yourself and appreciate the parts of you outside of being in vet school is actually beneficial to mental health. So we made the “I am Also” wall and gave students nametags that they could write down something that they “are” that doesn’t have to do with vet school! I’ve attached a photo of the wall. I put down “meme queen” and “funny” and “fan of The Bachelor” but it took me longer to think of those things than I’d like to admit! When I got people to contribute, SO MANY people struggled to come up with something, and we’d just smile and tell them that “that’s the point of this exercise!” And everyone came up with something eventually. It was a pretty fun event, and super easy to do (I’ve attached a picture of the wall).

Promote an open and accepting culture surrounding mental health:

This was the biggest goal of the week, by far. Like I said, we have this knowledge of “mental health” as kind of this obscure entity that plagues veterinary students, but don’t really have a face to the name. There is very little sharing about personal experiences with mental health, and a really huge stigma to battle, as much as we don’t like to admit it.

Our approach to tackling the stigma was to just get people talking and sharing. We know so many people struggle, but we don’t know who struggles and when did they struggle and what did they struggle with? Luckily for us in Canada, Bell Let’s Talk Day was during the week before Let’s THRIVE Week. This is a day that Bell Canada (kind of like the AT&T of Canada?) puts on where you can tweet/Facebook/Snapchat/Instagram with the hashtag #BellLetsTalk for the purposes of bringing about these important discussions and breaking down stigma. Bell donates 5 cents to mental health charities for each post including the hashtag. This has been happening for about 5 or 6 years now, and it’s pretty well known in Canada. So we decided to use this nationally recognized day to kick off our story-sharing and promote Let’s THRIVE Week.

We came up with the “Humans of OVC” social media campaign. It’s basically the same as Humans of New York, but with a mental health spin. We had 3 exec members, 1 faculty, and 1 volunteer photographer to get this thing going. So we had 4 people to share on Facebook, and we thought “you know, that could be enough to share during the week leading up to Let’s THRIVE Week, and that will be a good promotion!” We scheduled 2 students’ stories to be shared on our Facebook and Instagram (#HumansofOVC) on Bell Let’s Talk Day, and then the next ones during the rest of the week. We didn’t expect the response we got. The photos/stories pretty much blew up online, and people were talking! Pretty much within hours, I was getting emails from people wanting to take part and share their experience. People even started sharing for Bell Let’s Talk Day.

We collected more, and now we have shared over 20 people’s stories since then.

For Let’s THRIVE Week, we also made our “One Voice Come Together” (OVCT) Wall. This was a banner that was going to be displayed in the main foyer where we were posting anonymous submissions of experiences about mental health. We collected some in advance through an anonymous survey, and we also had paper at the wall for students to take and write their own story to be posted. We also had post-its so that people could respond on the wall. It started off slow, I think people didn’t know what it was all about. But soon we got more submissions and the crowds came by. The responses that people wrote were so heartwarming. It was a good visualization of the struggles people have and the kinds of challenges people are living with outside vet school. We will be posting some of these posts on our Facebook and Instagram in the coming weeks.

My favourite moment of the OVCT wall was this: Every day that we had it up, our Associate Dean of Students, Peter Conlon, came by and read the posts and look for any new ones that went up. I worked for Dr. Conlon this summer, and I had approached him a few times to make a submission for Humans of OVC. Although I didn’t get any response, I just figured he was busy and got a million emails, so I thought I would ask him in person sometime soon. On the third day of the OVCT Wall being up, near the end of the day I got an email from Dr. Conlon with his story about growing up with Tourette’s Syndrome and how that affected his mental health over time, and he attached a picture and said I could post his name. He’s a very professional person, and also very visible to the student community, and he had never revealed this about himself before. The vulnerability of this post pretty much made my cry, and I posted it immediately. To this day it’s the most viewed, liked, shared, commented on post on Humans of OVC. I have the inkling that he did this without prompting after reading all the stories on OVCT, but I haven’t asked him yet to confirm!

Finally, we also had a mental health panel. We had 4 students and 2 faculty come and share their experiences about mental health, ranging from diagnosed mental health conditions to the stresses of practice and professional life. We had never done anything like this before, so we had no idea what to expect! I met with the panelists the week before so that they could share their stories with each other, so they wouldn’t be hearing their colleagues talk about difficult things for the first time in front of an audience. I would definitely recommend this if you’re thinking of running a panel, because it helps everyone be comfortable and the panelists were really supportive of each other. It was a truly powerful evening, and the panelists got a standing ovation at the end from our crowd of about 60 people. The best part was, so many people hung around for over an hour after to just talk to each other about their own stories and to show support. Hopefully the success of this year’s event brings lots of people to it next year!

The feedback from staff and students has been remarkable. I think opening several different avenues for sharing personal experiences was really monumental, and it felt kind of like the floodgates had opened. We were all made aware of the magnitude of struggles experienced by students, which I think has resulted in 2 things: people started to feel less alone in their own struggles, and everyone became a bit more compassionate and empathetic to those around them. We are hoping to continue the openness that Let’s THRIVE Week has brought to OVC in order to work toward reducing the stigma surrounding mental health.

If you want to know more about Let’s THRIVE Week or OVC THRIVE, please don’t hesitate to contact me (sfinn@mail.uoguelph.ca), and you can see more photos from Let’s THRIVE week on our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/ovc.thrive/ or our Instagram (@ovc.thrive).


Thought of the Week:
What do you do at your school about the problems in veterinary medicine?

Ideas:
something very similar to Shannon!
nothing…
something different than Shannon
??? (post in comments)

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6 thoughts on “Ontario Veterinary College THRIVE – Friday Focus #4

    • So I actually sent out a feedback survey for Let’s THRIVE Week, which got over 100 responses! The main thing our exec will be discussing this week at our debrief meeting, is that some of the feedback was about the “negative” or dark/sad/traumatic stories that were shared, and the viewers either not expecting that or not really knowing what to do about it.

      I do think that we did provide a lot of upbeat/positive activities, and at the same time it was extremely important to allow people to share openly and freely about their experiences. We don’t want to take away any of that in an attempt to “sugar-coat.” So this is our interesting conundrum. We might try and put more emphasis on methods like positive psychology or mindfulness, or include workshops on how to help a peer (our Wellness Education Centre has lots of really great workshops you can hold).

      We also might try to spread out some events. For some students (especially 4th years) they weren’t able to attend any of the events of the week, so some of the feedback was to try and spread things out and do monthly events. I think it’s still important to have an intensive “week” dedicated to mental health, because I think the focus was really strong during Let’s THRIVE Week, but at the same time offering activities more regularly.

      Plans for the future would be to continue Humans of OVC, and we also had a suggestion from a professor to start like a “book club” (without books) where we can have casual guided discussions about common issues/challenges of practice that we don’t touch on as much in school – in a practical way! Things like how to make an ethical decision and still be able to sleep at night, how to advocate for yourself and have courageous conversations, and how to “fail forward” from a medical mistake. Unfortunately we just ran out of time to run it this year! So hopefully we can run it in the fall next year.

      We are also trying to think of what we can do to alleviate the upcoming stresses of exams, especially for the second and third years because they’re probably the highest stress exam periods in all of vet school. We’re just not sure what yet! I love the breakfasts that the CLAW at UC Davis runs – might be looking to steal that one!

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      • Thank you for all these other ideas!

        Regarding the first part, about peoples’ reactions to dark/sad/traumatic stories- it’s a sign of the kind of society is available that we don’t have to expect or know how to handle suffering. But, maybe we’re missing out on some part of what it means to be human if we don’t understand suffering. Is that what you mean by “sugarcoating”?

        One suggestion offered by the CEO of AAVMC, who was first offered it by mental health professionals, is that whenever you want to share or there is a risk of sharing something dark/sad/traumatic, is to always be able to quickly turn around and offer resources, and hopefully that involves access to a counselor. Do you guys have a good set-up for access to counselors at OVC?

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        • We had posters up during the week that listed all the available resources, as well as how to book an appointment with our counsellor (who’s available 2 days of the week). We have counsellors on main campus but they are swamped with the undergrad students, so it can take a while to see one unfortunately.
          I think what I meant by sugar coating was that we didn’t actively exclude any of the darker stories, or filter them out or balance them with positive stories, we simply shared all the submissions we received! I guess we just didn’t advertise that it would be mostly sad/dark/traumatic stories (because we didn’t know ahead of time that we would get mostly submissions of this type), so maybe we can forewarn students about that better next year?
          We also got lots of good feedback about how open the sharing was and that although it was tough to read/hear, it was necessary.

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