What a brave tennis star can teach a stressed-out veterinarian

Naomi Osaka opting to take a mental health break might be an inspiration for veterinary professionals

Tennis pro Naomi Osaka opting to take a mental health break might be an inspiration for veterinary professionals. Photo ©BigStockPhoto.com
Tennis pro Naomi Osaka opting to take a mental health break might be an inspiration for veterinary professionals.

Early this summer, the world tuned in to the saga of one beleaguered tennis pro. Naomi Osaka, one of the winningest, most well-paid players on the planet, was out of the French Open. She had bowed out, preferring to focus more on her mental health than face a press corps obsessed with her private life.

The fracas started after she had ghosted a press conference, a mandatory obligation imposed by the tournament’s administration. She had been fined for the lapse and the dust-up had ruffled feathers, polarizing the press, the players, and the public.

Osaka had been candid about her aversion to the press’s intrusive, banal line of questioning. Playing on clay courts, a notorious nemesis of hers, was already weighing heavily. While she is no quitter, she felt pushed over the edge by the confluence of factors. Best not to prove a “distraction,” she said.

Yeah, the last line did not land as she intended. It blew back in a big way, ultimately proving far more of a “distraction” than anyone might have predicted. Instead of fading into the background, her trials became the talk of the tournament and, indeed, the world.

The flap over her withdrawal advanced a whole new set of issues—not only for a sport forced to defend itself from widespread tennis fan ire (for pushing a star athlete to the brink in service of its incestuous relationship with the press), but also for anyone who wonders whether their job is really worth the drain on their mental health.

Predictably, however, Osaka herself was the recipient of most of the blowback. As too often happens with those who out themselves for requiring mental health services, her decision to withdraw revealed the biases endemic in our wider culture against those who make professional concessions for their mental health’s sake.

Just suck it up!

To wit, withering commentary repeatedly questioned how someone who makes more than $50 million a year could possibly be stressed by a simple press appearance. Or how someone who competes at the highest levels could be so weak willed and thin skinned. As if this perceived lapse in basic courage revealed she never deserved her top ranking in the first place.

The words, “Suck it up, Naomi,” could be seen on more than one sign, tweet, and Facebook post. It was pretty much the T-shirt quote of the week, with “Just Do It, Naomi” coming in a close second. To most outsiders, it would seem, the stress comes with the role of tennis star. This is just the way it is. If you need an easier job, they said, then maybe it is time to hang it up.

It is not too hard to see where I am going with this. Who among us has not taken a mental health break under the guise of a long-dead grandmother or a fictional flu? Indeed, there are plenty among us who have even taken extended mental health holidays—often unexpectedly (as I did a few years back). And for each one of us who did say, “enough,” there are a great many more who should have.

But it is not so easy, is it? We are told being a veterinarian means a lot of things, but foremost among them is we are expected to power through our work, even when our plate is overloaded, our teams are surly, our boss is unforgiving, and our family claims we are never home enough or the bills are too big for our pay.

I do not need to tell any of you veterinary medicine has changed. Our paychecks are undoubtedly less powerful than they once were but, more significantly, we have less power than we used to. Whereas most of us once ruled our roosts, more of us now labor down lower on the organizational totem pole. More of us have bosses (sometimes several), and, overall, we are granted less agency than we used to have. We are not just at the mercy of our jobs, we are at the mercy of other humans and institutions, too.

Looking at ourselves

The point is, it is not so easy to say, “I need a mental health break,” and get away with it without the world knowing we are sliding headlong into burnout or without otherwise impacting our career’s advancement adversely. These days, our worlds are more scripted and we rely on more people to make our work happen. If we needed a Naomi-style moment to breathe, many of us would probably need a doctor’s note to get it.

If our profession’s suicide rate is any measure, it is clear we need more mental health concessions than ever before. Yet, this kind of flexibility and sensitivity is not exactly how this profession is trending. So what is a veterinarian to do? I mean, this is what we signed up for, isn’t it?

Whenever I hear this comment about our job, Naomi’s job, any job, I feel the need to push back. After all, “this is what we signed up for” is no rationale for enduring any profession’s built-in stressors, abuses, or inequities. For example, in vet school, when we were made to stay up all night to provide academically meaningless labor for the teaching hospital at the expense of our mental health, I lobbied for change.

You guessed it; I lost this fight. I was told, “this is how it has always been and you will suffer through it just like we did.” Because suffering builds character? Makes you a better student? A better vet? Of course not. It only makes you better at troubleshooting fluid pumps while half-conscious. I may have lost, but it was a worthy battle, the kind we need to wage more often in our profession.

Pivot back to tennis: If Naomi’s crisis taught me anything, it is there is a lot of value in recognizing where institutional change needs to happen. For example, why do all tennis players have to endure oppressive, ignorant, abusive, and/or intrusive questions as part of what they do? Why should tournaments have the right to force them to? After all, fans have no right to know whether she has a lover or when she last spoke to her father. It has no bearing on her tennis skills. Change this one rule, and you will improve conditions for players immeasurably.

So, too, in veterinary medicine. Let us find those institutional practices, which are no-brainer sources of unnecessary stress. Every veterinary practice, school, and vet-employing organization has them.

Why should we continue to suffer? While we are at it, what else can we do to make it easier on our mental health? A longer maternity/paternity leave? Unscheduled mental health days? Access to therapists? Insurance plans offering real mental health benefits?

When the job becomes more stressful, we should not blame ourselves for not coping well. We should probably look for structural problems within the job itself and find ways to fix it. Most importantly, we should recognize putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first is the key to real success in our career… in any career.

Patty Khuly, VMD, MBA, owns a small animal practice in Miami and is a passionate blogger at drpattykhuly.com. Columnists’ opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Veterinary Practice News.

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