A Social Worker’s Experience at a Veterinary School and Teaching Hospital
Eric Richman, MSW, LICSW, is a clinical social worker at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center at Tufts University. He provides counseling and support services to clients and staff at both the small and large animal hospitals. Eric provides support during emergencies, counsels clients who are caring for sick or dying animals, and offers equine-assisted learning for veterinary students and staff.
I transitioned into the field of veterinary social work after a 25-year career working at large teaching hospitals in and around Boston, Massachusetts. My previous work experience was in substance abuse and psychiatric treatment, followed by medical social work, primarily working within a liver and kidney transplant program. Teaching hospitals afforded me the opportunity' to work in an interdisciplinary environment where people from various disciples would collaborate to best serve a patient’s unique needs.
Organ transplantation is a fascinating field that has both lifesaving success, as well as its fair share of tragic losses. Working in this setting helped hone my skills in helping people struggle with difficult decisions and end of life care and support. In some ways, veterinary social work has similar challenges in terms of helping clients who have animals with acute or chronic health issues.
Starting around 2010, veterinary teaching hospitals began to employ' social workers and other mental health professionals on a more consistent basis. The role of a social worker at a veterinary' school teaching hospital can be narrow in scope, focusing primarily on the emotional needs of clients bringing in acute or chronically' ill animals for treatment and grief counseling. However, in my role at a veterinary' teaching hospital, the use of social work-related skills has been expansive. This is in part due to the nature of social work training as well as the openness of my university' to utilize social work skills in a variety' of settings.
In addition to direct client counseling around medical decision making for a sick animal, my role involves grief counseling with adults and children. This role is very' important in a society that often devalues or ignores the role
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of pet loss and the impact it has on individuals and families. Part of a social workers role in this setting is to validate the loss of an animal in someone’s life and recognize the importance of the human-animal bond.
Having the experience and skills of developing support groups for patients in a medical setting struggling with liver and kidney disease or recovering from transplant surgery, it was a logical step for me to establish support groups in a veterinary setting. Specifically, pet loss groups allow individuals to share their grief in a setting where others can understand and provide mutual support in a safe and nonjudgmental setting.
At some veterinary teaching hospitals, the role of a social worker can also include the opportunity to work in a teaching role, lecturing to veterinary students as part of a larger course on the human-animal relationship. This teaching focuses on helping veterinary students understand grief and loss as it relates to interactions they will have with clients once they leave the classroom and enter the clinical setting. Additionally, it is an opportune time to help students begin to explore their own grief history and how they view loss and death in their own lives. In better understanding their own history and reaction to loss, they will be more equipped at helping clients faced with end of life care and decisions about their companion animals.
Perhaps one of the most exciting opportunities for social workers at some veterinary teaching hospitals has been in the area of equine-assisted learning (EAL) to help both students and veterinary staff address a number of important school and workplace challenges. EAL is an experiential learning method with horses that focuses on learning from doing various interactive activities with horses. The activity is followed by a facilitated debriefing session to help individuals make parallels from what they learned within their session and their own day-to day environment. Examples include topics such as self-awareness, team interactions, leadership roles, and communication skill development.
The benefits of EAL also extend to the horses. At our hospital, we use teaching horses that help students learn important equine skills and medical procedures. The horses appear to enjoy many of the activities during an EAL session, providing stimulation and enrichment, as well as a break from the clinic environment. This is a wonderful example of a mutually beneficial human-animal interaction.
Our satellite community' clinic, which provides low cost veterinary services to underserved communities, presents another opportunity for social work involvement. In collaboration with the clinic Medical Director, we developed a program to imbed a masters level social work intern into the clinic to offer services to pet owners visiting the community clinic. The intern has the opportunity' to practice assessments and interventions, and develop and implement core social work skills and competencies related to cultural humility and knowledge of social, economic, and environmental inequities.
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Based on my experience in a veterinary school and teaching hospital, social workers and other social and behavioral professionals have a great deal to offer clients, students, faculty; house officers, and staff'. As outlined above, our unique skill set can be used in a variety' of settings and interactions to positively contribute to the veterinary profession and the development of future veterinary professionals.