A Culture of Caring

DISCLAIMER: What I’m about to share is from a VERY long time ago, when I was in high school. I have worked through this specific issue and have a good mental health support that I don’t feel this way, nor have these thoughts anymore.

High school was not a fun time for me. And I mean, none of it. For freshman year, I had switched to a private school in another city, hoping for a fresh start. Middle school had been turbulent, and my parents assumed it may have been associated with switching from private to public school. The new start was a shot in the dark, and while I was excited, I was also very nervous. My only friend, Julie (still my BFF-forever and ever), stayed in Rock Hill and attended the public high school. I knew absolutely no one at my new school.

I can’t blame my school peers for my actions at the end of my sophomore year. We were stupid kids (yes, I’m using the “S” word, while I recognize that words matter, it fits here). We had the emotional intelligence of a bag of bricks. But being excluded from basically all social groups still stung. While Julie was my rock, she wasn’t equipped with the tools to help me as I sank into deeper and deeper depression. She barely recognized that her best friend was spiraling out of control.

What I wanted more than anything was for someone to ask me how I was doing, for someone, for ANYONE, to show that they cared. No one HATED me. I wasn’t bullied, or teased. I just didn’t seem to exist to anyone.

At the end of my sophomore year, I began leaving encrypted notes around with a special “alphabet” I created. These notes basically said the same thing, “I want to die.”

You know how powerful mantras are? Thinking the same thing day in and day out, that became my mantra. Each passing day, I felt more and more isolated. I felt like a ghost. To the point where it wasn’t uncommon for people to bump into me, vaguely apologize and look perplexed because they didn’t notice I was there.

I tried to do it quietly. Sort of. I wrote a note (not in my secret language) and placed it in my backpack. Then, at lunch I emptied a bottle of Motrin along with a whole package of Benadryl. It didn’t take long for the vomiting to start. I got sent home and I waited for death to take me.

Obviously, that didn’t happen. My mom found my note. She rushed me to the hospital and I had my stomach pumped. I survived, but my road to recovery from that was long and arduous. It took me years to stop hating myself that much.

Today, I get teary-eyed when I think about what I almost did. All my dreams almost never coming to fruition. All the possibilities I almost lost. My heart breaks for that little girl (I know my 17-year-old self would punch me in the face for calling her a little girl, but still…).

As I entered the animal care profession, I never thought about how compassion fatigue and what Kimberly Pope-Robinson calls the Unspoken Life could impact my mental health. I thought playing with animals, living my dream, and doing what I had always felt I had been called to do would fix EVERYTHING. It’s literally the only thing I’ve ever wanted all my life, so how could anything be bad about it?

Those in the animal care field know EXACTLY how things can be bad about working our dream job. A research report shows that 90% of zookeepers experience what we call burnout. Considering the national average is at 72%, this is a staggering statistic. Veterinarians have the highest rate of suicide of ANY medical profession. I think this month, Mental Health Awareness Month, is a very important time to recognize and look at this issue and how we can be part of the solution.

So, how do we combat this?

Well, now we finally get to the title of this article– we create a Culture of Caring.

Here’s the really ass-backwards situation: We as zookeepers (and I’m sure ALL animal care professionals) give our whole hearts to the animals in our care. No need is unmet, no want is ignored. If the smallest, slightest change in behavior, eating habits, poop, or appearance is noticed (and we pride ourselves on noticing these exact things), our alarm bells go off. We may even alert other staff members, vet staff, or management about the issue.

But what about our colleagues? Both our immediate team members and other staff at our facility? What do we do for each other to support and encourage and show that we care? Do we even notice if the usually bubbly, smiling, happy-go-lucky employee is suddenly casting their eyes down, frowning, or crying? Here’s the kicker: if we DO notice these advert behavioral changes in our colleagues, do we DO anything about it? Do we say something, or do we just ignore it?

I’ve been at facilities that embrace a Culture of Caring, and I’ve been at facilities that do not. I can certainly tell you which ones are my favorite to work for.

It’s not actually all that hard to create a Culture of Caring. Remember what I said up above about wanting someone or anyone to show me that they cared? We can do that. It just takes a teensy amount of effort to extend a “good morning” or “hello, my friend.” It can change someone’s world to reach out and say, “I can see that you are upset, would you like to talk about it?” (Side note: asking simply “are you okay?” and “what’s wrong?” usually activates what I call the “walls-up response” of “I’m fine,” which is usually NEVER the case)

Let me be clear. Other people’s mental health is NOT your RESPONSIBILITY, and there are times when some of us, even the most social of people, want to be left alone. This is where being open and communicating with our team comes in handy. If someone asks if you want to talk, and you want to be left alone, you can simply respond with “thank you for checking in, I prefer to just be alone right now.” But at least both people know that the other cared.

What is our responsibility is making sure the animals in our care are receiving the best care. Period. And that includes taking care of ourselves, and yes, taking care of our team. Our team is not just our immediate co-workers. Even if you work a unit by yourself most days, you are a part of a bigger picture team.

This month, I challenge each of you to reach out to another member of your team (a co-worker, a manager, someone you know, or someone you don’t know). Tell them you care, not just with our words, but our actions as well.

We can make a difference. We can change the culture from one of extreme burnout and fatigue to a culture of caring. Taking to time to help each other feel a little better. Because when we feel better, we can do better.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please get help. Even if I don’t know you, if you are reading this, I care. There are many resources out there. One of my favorites is GRAZE, but the mental health crisis line can put you in touch with people who can help. Just call 9-8-8 (the mental health emergency phone number). You are loved. You are not alone.

5 Responses

  1. Thank you for being brave and sharing your story. You are a strong and wonderful person!

    1. I’ve had some amazing role models, Suzanne (wink wink, nudge nudge). From one strong and wonderful woman to another, thank you for all you do!

  2. Thank you, PJ, for sharing your personal story and letting folks know they are not alone. So true that we are always on high alert for our animals, but not always for the people in our lives. The Unspoken Life is a great book. I recently gave my dog-eared, highlighted one to a friend who was struggling and bought another. GRAZE is a great resource, and they offer a virtual support group (there’s one tonight 5/9 7:30-9 EST). If people are interested in learning how to help, there’s also QPR (Question. Persuade. Refer.) training by the QPR Institute. Again, thank you for sharing and for all you do in this space. You’re making a difference and I appreciate you! Have a great day! Danni

    1. Oh thank you for that, Danni. Didn’t know about QPR, I’m interested in checking them out. Keep up the amazing work you’re doing, too!

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