By Lacy Campbell, OWRA Board, June 2020
Health is at the forefront of our minds currently, but our mental health may or may not be. We are currently living through interesting times that none of us could have predicted or at the least anticipated. Covid-19 has changed almost every aspect of our lives from how we interact with others to how we get groceries. And while this time is unprecedented, our mental health needs haven’t changed.
As humans the need to feel physically and emotionally secure are of universal importance. It’s the basis of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Often when confronted with an endless revolving door of patients we wildlife rehabilitators we often forget this for ourselves. Pair that with low to no income, long hours and bringing work home with us and this feeling of overwhelm compounds. It can be hard to try to take a breath when you feel like doing so could harm a life that you have chosen to care for.
However, it is those moments of taking breath and perspective that are so crucial to our mental health and well-being and our ability to care for others. One thing I have learned in my time in medical school is how the mind and body are connected. You can’t be healthy when you are in constant fight or flight. This is like the need for rest and recovery after working out. The real growth comes with the repair process, where you are stronger than before and able to take on a larger load.
How can we cultivate this repair and recovery process in our lives that never seem to slow down? The first thing you can do is set boundaries and stick to them. You decide what those are. I decided not to check my email after normal business hours, to make sure that I was able to connect to people I am close to, to meditate daily and practice my bagpipes. These practices helped me switch from work mode to human mode. Of course, there were days when I could do those things. It doesn’t help to stress out about them. I do know though that setting those practices up before disaster strikes can help you cope through difficult times.
When I started running the wildlife care center, I quickly found out what stress was. Long hours, a demanding environment, constantly witnessing trauma and delivering euthanasia was hard to deal with. I knew that if I didn’t do something for my mental state I would burn out. Luckily, I had just started learning how to play the bagpipes and I had promised myself (and my teacher) that I would practice daily. Over time I added a meditation practice. These helped me deal with the day to day stresses of the job. However, it was all tested when my mentor, friend and co-worker was diagnosed with cancer. She had chemo and radiation during our busiest season. If any of you have ever had someone close go through that treatment, it is grueling. Luckily it seemed to work, and a year went by. The next summer we were tested to the limit. After having intense headaches for months, she found out her cancer was metastatic, and she was transferred to hospice care where she quickly passed away. She worked up until the day she left for the hospital.
The wildlife care center didn’t stop, it didn’t get any easier. Having to be the emotional rock for over 100 volunteers and the rest of the organization was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. And I still needed to take care of the animals without a consistent veterinarian. I’m not telling you this story for sympathy but to say that because of the self-care practices I had set up in my life I was able to handle the stress of this event in a much healthier way. It is impossible for me to think about anything else when I am practicing the bagpipes. My meditation practice helped me respond to my emotions and the emotions of others during that time in a way that was less overwhelming. It was still so hard. I reached out to others who had gone through a similar experience. I called to commiserate, to bitch about things and just to talk. I know he was just as busy as I was, but it helped knowing that he’d be there when I called. Having those connections to people in your community who know what you are going through are indispensable. It was partly through my connections from this organization that I was able to work through the difficulty of losing someone so instrumental in my life.
One thing I remind myself of constantly is if you are sick or if you are burned out you won’t be able to care for others. We must take self-care as seriously as we take our animal care. This includes modeling good behavior for others so that they can avoid burnout. Together we can help change this culture of giving more than we have.