We May Work in Enclosed Spaces but Let’s Talk Openly About Mental Health  

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Written by: Hannah Fullmer

What better way to kick start this blog, then during Mental Health Awareness Month. From May 1st to 31st in 2022 the Mental Health America organization will be supporting the theme of “Back to Basics; foundational knowledge about mental health and information about what people can do if their mental health is cause for concern.”  https://www.mhanational.org/mental-health-month  

Image from Statista : https://www.statista.com/chart/25620/prevalence-of-mental-health-issues-in-the-us/

Mental Health Awareness Month has been observed in the United States since 1949, previously supported by the National Association for Mental Health, now known as Mental Health America organization. They develop annual themes to focus on and send out materials for education along with other mental health support groups around the country.  

So, what are the basics? In an effort to reduce the stigma around mental health, let’s get some facts out of the way. A 2013 study found that 90% of people would experience a critical event in their lifetime, compared to 1970 where that number was 76%. In the 1970s there was an average of 78 disasters per year, by 2010 that average number has grown to 351 annually. The year is 2022 and we have all experienced an entirely new type of stressor, a pandemic, which is still ongoing! On average the rate of death by suicide has increased in the United States by 30% between 2000 and 2020. 

One of the main goals of this year’s theme is to reduce stigma and provide commonality and normalcy to the struggle that some people may have around mental health. This includes changing how we talk about mental health and suicide. Instead of saying “successful suicide” or “committed suicide”, statements which come with stigma or associations, changing to saying “died by suicide” or “death by suicide”. Instead of shaming someone for sharing their fears or emotions, being non-judgmental in how we listen and provide support. Support can come in many ways, if you’re not comfortable being a resource for someone in need, you can be a representative of strength and help them find an appropriate resource. Encourage them and share that you do not judge them, but instead want to help them. Being a resource does not mean being someone’s therapist or mentor, it can mean that you simply hold space for them when they need you to.  

You may be reading this and wondering, OK, I get it mental health challenges yada yada yada, but how does any of this impact ME a zookeeper, aquarist or animal professional? Our industry has normalized a lot of abnormal events and conditioned many of us to simply accept them as part of the job and move on. Things like expected and unexpected loss of animal life, animal transfers, loss of coworkers, task saturation, physical injury, the list goes on and on (and I am not here to activate anything for anyone, simply to imply that we endure A LOT of stressors.) 

Thankfully our industry is starting to take notice. What we have observed over the past few years is the increased prevalence of some key buzzwords. Terms coming up more and more. Well, just as frustrating as it can be to hear someone pass your flamingos and call them swans, it can be frustrating to those in the mental health world to hear people misusing terms like burnout and compassion fatigue. Not to the same degree I assure you, but just as passionate as you may be about correcting that guest in an effort to get them connected to the animal and invested in their wild cousins, we too in the mental health community want you to understand the language you are hearing.   Here are a few terms you might be hearing in a quick and very small review; 

  • Trauma and Critical Incident – Any actual or alleged event or situation that creates a significant risk or substantial or serious harm to the physical or mental health, safety, or well-being of a participant. Any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm the usually effective coping skills of an individual. They are often abrupt, powerful events that fall outside the range of ordinary human experiences.  
  • Compassion Fatigue – The physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people/animals over an extended period of time. Unlike cumulative stress, (previously referred to as burnout) which is caused by everyday work stresses this is the absorption of emotional burden of a patient or participants agony.  
  • Cumulative Stress – An unfortunately common experience for people who work in chronically stressful situations. It results from an accumulation of various stress factors such as heavy workload, poor communications, multiple frustrations, coping with situations in which you feel powerless, and the inability to rest or relax.  

I feel emotionally hijacked just reviewing all of this and thinking back to my days as a frontline keeper. There’s another term we may sometimes hear, emotional hijacking. This is something I learned from Felid TAG during their basic husbandry course. It was one of the first times education around animal care at least touched on the fact that we as caregivers are in fact also humans. If or when any of us experience any of the big three listed above, our minds become saturated. There is only so much capacity we have to translate between experience and responsibility and when that max is hit, there can be reactions.  

Common reactions to stressful or abnormal events can range in how they impact us, from our cognition to emotions and even stimulating physical responses. There is a very long list of signs and symptoms I could review, but I already feel as though this first blog is going to get away from me simply because of my pure excitement to be able to share with others that I have been where you are, and I was able to recover to re-empower myself. I only have the best intentions for anyone willing to review their own mental health and find motivation to improve. If you find after a stressful event that you aren’t sleeping as well or sleeping too much, appetite changes, mood changes; these are all common. If you find that you are having flashbacks, memory disturbances, meaning making, trouble making decisions; these are all common. If you feel stuck in feelings of fear, guilt, over sensitivity, anxiety, or depression… these are all common.  

But common doesn’t mean required. Common doesn’t mean that you need to be stuck where you are, it just means that these things are prevalent and chances are that you’re not alone. I’m going to go ahead and repeat that last bit…. Are you paying attention? ….. 

 You Are Not Alone  

Acknowledgement may be the first step in all of this, bringing awareness to mental health challenges. Shining a light on the darker side of our industry and our experiences can be scary, but there is hope. The road to recovery may be different for everyone, but if you’ve managed to read this entire thing and find yourself feeling motivated, excited, or even a little sad and afraid but feeling SOMETHING, then we are here. We will be here tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year, whenever you are ready for what’s next for you. To engage in your power and strength and help you enjoy the life you live alongside a job that brings you passion and inspires others.  

I am grateful to be a part of this journey with you and look forward to our next installment. Please feel free to leave comments about topics you’d like to learn more about in the future. If you have any questions about services GRAZE can provide please reach out to grazee@zoomentalhealthsupport.com 

With Care ~ 


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