UTCVM’s Veterinarians are using exercise to help with mental health

For certain professions, the pandemic combined with the challenges of jobs can make life and work difficult. One university is doing several programs to improve physical and mental health for veterinarians and its students.

“I think that right now it’s very difficult for people to maintain their mental health.”

She would prefer a challenging white water ride, but Karen Tobias still enjoys her kayak on a smooth surface, and she can even paddle to work.

It is a two mile commute on the Tennessee River from her home to the UT College of Veterinary Medicine, where Dr. Tobias is a professor and surgeon. For her, kayaking is mentally soothing and a great physical workout.

According to Dr. Tobias, “One of the things is if you’re paddling properly you’re actually rotating at the waist and you’re reaching. So, you’re getting shoulder work, you’re getting waist work, you’re getting back work, and if you’re doing it properly, from the waist up, it’s a great workout. Bottom half, not so much, but I carry my boat down to the river and back, so I do get a little workout that way as well.”

Tobias and faculty and students at UTCVM are in a program called the Walk Route 66 Initiative, named for the famed Chicago to California highway. All forms of exercise are encouraged, as long as you’re moving enough to travel the road’s 2,000 miles.

Life has been really stressful lately-- COVID, social unrests, and what has happened in Washington DC. Veterans are dealing with all this too, and for them, add the emotional task of caring for animals.

“What is assured is veterinarians care very deeply, and so they’re impacted by when the animals are not able to be healed,” UTCVM’s Elizabeth Strand states.

Strand is the founding director of veterinary social work at UTCVM. She has done research to help veterinarians cope with mental health issues. In this profession, where animals sometimes die in your care, work emotions can be harsh.

“What we are finding for veterinarians’ mental health is that veterinarians definitely have a higher rate of suicide than the general population, and they also tend to have more suicidal thoughts than the general population,” she states. “It’s really important that veterinarians and also the general community recognizes this and makes it okay to talk about.”

Strand encourages anyone, no matter their job, to exercise, get enough sleep, practice mindfulness, and, above all, seek help if you are struggling.

We will emerge on the other side of these challenging times, and for now, we have to do what’s best for our minds and bodies.