Take time to acknowledge your own thoughts and connect with others. Daily walks with my dogs and spouse are one way I practice this in my own life. This time gives me the opportunity to process my day, connect and get support if I need it, come up with ideas for tomorrow, and have some lighthearted conversation and fun.
Ihad the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Stewart-Brown. As program manager of mental health services at Banfield Pet Hospital, Lisa Stewart-Brown is focused on bringing the practice’s holistic approach to health and wellbeing to life. Since joining Banfield in 2018, Lisa has played a key role in developing strategies and initiatives that support the emotional and mental health of Banfield associates, including the launch of “ASK — Assess, Support, Know,” a first-of-its-kind training designed to help veterinary professionals recognize and address emotional distress and suicidal thoughts in themselves and others. Lisa is a licensed clinical social worker and holds a master’s degree in social work from California State University, Sacramento, and an MBA with a healthcare emphasis from California Miramar University.
Thank you so much for joining us, Lisa! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
For me, social work is a calling — and more about who I am at my core than a profession of choice. As a little girl, I remember being painfully shy, and there were times I preferred to suffer in silence than ask the most basic request of my teacher. However, when it came to witnessing the injustices of others, I was always compelled to speak up. My earliest memory of this was intervening when my first-grade classmates were making fun of another little girl who they considered “different.” I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I distinctly remember what I felt. It was anger, a sense of injustice, that their behavior was emphatically wrong, and I felt an overwhelming impulse to protect.
Fast forward to my work now — helping care for those who are called to care for our pets — and it feels like the most perfect fit for me. I have found our veterinary team members to be some of the most compassionate, empathic, and giving people. We’re similar in that we couldn’t imagine doing anything else — they’re called to their work because they have a deep passion for caring for pets, and I have an overwhelming desire to care for people. I feel incredibly privileged to have a career in my chosen profession and help make a difference in the lives of veterinary professionals.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
One of the most impactful moments of my career thus far has been creating “ASK — Assess, Support, Know,” a first-of-its-kind suicide prevention training designed specifically for veterinary professionals to help them recognize and address emotional distress and suicidal thoughts in themselves and others.
Many people don’t realize the veterinary industry has been dealing with emotional and mental health issues for decades. In fact, recent studies have found one in six veterinarians considers suicide, and one in 10 suffers from severe psychological distress. Banfield launched “ASK” in September to address this unfortunate reality, and as the largest general veterinary practice in the US, is committed to helping not only our associates but also the profession as a whole.
To underscore the harrowing 1-in-6 statistic, by January 6, 2020, Banfield will close schedules at all 1,000+ hospitals across the country for two hours to facilitate an interactive “ASK” training and discussion with our more than 19,000 hospital associates; make the training available as a free resource for the entire industry; and share it with all U.S. veterinary colleges for incorporating into their curriculum.
We believe our ASK training and resources will make a meaningful difference in people’s lives — and may also have the potential to save them.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
We’ve all likely experienced this at one point in our careers, but an incredibly embarrassing typo in an email I sent to my line manager once taught me a very valuable lesson I still live by today: “go slow to go fast!” It’s always better to take that extra moment to review your work before submitting it to ensure quality and avoid cringe-worthy mistakes!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people who have been an integral part of my success, but the first major influence I can remember was my fourth-grade teacher. I think it was the first time in my life that I felt an adult really saw me and understood why I was so shy and hesitant to speak up in certain situations. Looking back now, I am so appreciative of his efforts to help me work through and overcome those fears. His approach, as I’ve come to understand it, was to create a self-fulling prophecy. He started by giving me the nickname “motor mouth,” and he would often stop in the middle of class when I was sitting completely silent and say: “Lisa, you need to stop talking so much, you are being such a little motor mouth today.” He kept these types of interventions up throughout the school year, and as a result, opened the door for me to be less fearful about speaking up and letting my voice be heard. Today, I have zero difficulty speaking my mind or engaging in joyful conversation with strangers — as well as frequent bouts of public speaking. His thoughtful teaching methods no doubt set me on the right path and helped shaped the professional I am today.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Most veterinary professionals have been animal lovers their entire lives. It’s this passion and love for pets that makes joining this profession a calling for them; it’s also what can make being a veterinary professional so difficult. Their emotional investment in pets’ health and wellbeing can take a significant toll on them emotionally, and if left unaddressed, can lead to burnout and compassion fatigue.
This profession often calls for people to set aside their own feelings to take care of pets. And we see this across other industries as well — think about human healthcare ER doctors, firefighters, police, child protection social works, and so on, who deal with incredibly difficult situations daily and must put the health and safety of others before their own. Veterinary professionals can be masters at blocking out their emotions so they can offer support to clients, patients, and team members. This type of emotional labor can build up over time.
An important way to address these issues is to prioritize self-care and develop tools to process the emotions that build up throughout the day in a healthy way. When we think about unblocking suppressed emotions, we need to be able to get in touch with the other parts of us — our body, emotions, and feelings. For some, this may come naturally; however, for many it may feel strange or even silly at first. But the more we practice a new skill, the better we get at it.
To help people get in touch with their needs and emotions I created an acronym: L.A.S.T. You can remember this by thinking, “If I am to last in my profession, I need to L.A.S.T.”
L.A.S.T. stands for:
- Listen to your body by paying attention to sensations: your breathing; any tightness; pain; or other uncomfortable sensations.
- Accept what you notice without judgment.
- Seek to understand what you need and identify what your next steps will be, whether eating, hydrating, stretching, crying, talking to someone, exercising, listening to music, etc.
- Test out your next step, and check in with yourself to see how you feel. If your response is not what you want or need, try repeating the L.A.S.T steps. Sometimes it can take a few tries to figure out your next best step and to learn what your body and mind truly need.
L.A.S.T. can be used in the beginning of a day, during micro-breaks, after a difficult meeting or client interaction, or before going home, so you have a sense of feeling refreshed before you greet your family. Some people like to close their eyes and go through the L.A.S.T process in silence, some like to do this while jogging or walking, and others find it most helpful to write out their answers.
Find what works best for you! The most important thing is to attend to your emotional health through acknowledging your wants and feelings.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
It might seem simple, but words and actions matter. At Banfield, we truly believe high-quality, compassionate veterinary care for pets starts with healthy, energized associates. Therefore, we have created a culture with holistic associate health and wellbeing at the center, building awareness and education through programs, tools, benefits and services that support our associates be at their best. No matter your industry or the size of your company, I encourage all organizations to prioritize the health and wellbeing of their people.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?
I prefer to think about mental health in the same way we think about physical health — something that needs to be cared for and tended to daily.
Below are three things you can try implementing in your everyday life to optimize your mental wellness:
- Take time to acknowledge your own thoughts and connect with others. Daily walks with my dogs and spouse are one way I practice this in my own life. This time gives me the opportunity to process my day, connect and get support if I need it, come up with ideas for tomorrow, and have some lighthearted conversation and fun.
- We cannot control everything that happens in our lives, and sometimes traumatic events occur — for example natural disasters, crimes, assaults, death of loved ones (especially if sudden or accidental), or even medical treatments. When things are not going well for us, when we don’t feel emotionally balanced, or when we are in emotional pain, it’s important to remember professional help exists. Talking to an expert can help us make sense of the senseless, get back on our feet, and even avoid a more chronic condition.
- Lastly, fulfilling relationships can be incredibly important to overall health and wellbeing, and in order to have high-quality relationships, we need to be able to communicate effectively. This is an area that can be easy to improve — whether it’s by reading reputable self-improvement materials, taking a course, watching TED Talks or seeking the help of a counselor. It may come as no surprise that the key to good communication stems from being an excellent listener and being able to express that you truly understand what the other person is saying.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
Erik Erikson, who is credited with developing the 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development, defines the retirement phase of our life as “Integrity vs. Despair.” Erikson suggests this new chapter starts in people’s mid-to-late 60’s through end-of-life, and that we have two general choices on how to approach this time in our lives: through the “lens of satisfaction and integrity” or the “lens of failure and despair.”
I believe those who approach retirement with a general sense of acceptance and excitement about what’s next can thoroughly enjoy retirement, even with its inevitable challenges. Rather than viewing retirement as an end to something or feeling like you’re giving up and no longer being productive, I would suggest framing it instead as a new chapter with the freedom to do what you’re truly passionate about.
For example, pursue a new hobby, volunteer for a local organization or become an advocate for a cause you’re passionate about, spend more time with family and friends, join or start a new club, learn a new language, and travel the world!
How about teens and pre-teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre-teens to optimize their mental wellness?
Younger generations today are the first to grow up in the age of social media, and unlike prior generations have a unique opportunity to instantly share their thoughts and opinions on large platforms. This is why it’s so important for everyone — not just teens — to remember how much words matter and how important it is to be mindful of what we say. Cyberbullying is a real issue that can have serious consequences on people’s emotional health and wellbeing, and people need to remember that on the other end of comments, photos and videos are real people who can be impacted.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
The Precious Present by Spencer Johnson MD is a book I continue to re-read. To me, it is the essence of what people refer to as “mindfulness,” and reading it reminds me of the rewards in life that come when we pay attention and stay present.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
For the vast majority of veterinarians, caring for pets is more than a job — it’s a calling. Because of the passion they have for helping pets and the lengths they go to do so, veterinary professionals are faced with rewarding opportunities but also unique challenges. Veterinarians have some of the highest rates of student debt — and debt-to-income ratio — with the American Veterinary Medical Association estimating the average debt of most veterinary college graduates with student loans is more than $180,000. Veterinary professionals also encounter extremely emotional situations every day, many of which include heartbreaking life-or-death decisions involving beloved companions.
Yet when you speak with someone outside of the veterinary industry, many of them have no idea these problems exist within the profession, let alone that these issues have impacted our pet care providers for decades. It is my goal to play a part in helping to raise awareness of the suicide and mental health crisis that’s impacting those who care for our beloved pets, and I’m incredibly proud to work for an organization that is not only helping to raise awareness on this topic, but taking actionable steps to make a difference for our associates and the industry as a whole.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I love this quote by Virginia Satir, a pioneer in family therapy, because it helps me remember that life happens and to enjoy it rather than trying to make everything perfect. The quote also reminds me I may have no control over certain events that occur, but I do have control over how a choose to interpret and respond to them, which ultimately means I am in control of how I think and feel about my experiences.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
- Instagram: @lisastewartbrown
- Twitter: @Banfield
Thank you for all of these great insights!