Courageous Conversations Conference 2021 – personal reflections as the new MMI Officer
Abi Hanson started working as the Mind Matters Initiative Officer in June 2021. She graduated from The University of Bristol in 2018 with a 2:1 in French and Italian before taking a year out to see the world. In 2019, she landed an internship at a public relations agency and later moved on to work in international corporate events. Mental health, animal welfare and conservation have always been close to Abi’s heart and, before landing her role at the RCVS, she started writing her own blog to encourage others to be more open about their experiences with mental health. Abi is delighted to be working as a part of the Mind Matters team and is determined to use her combined passion for people, animals and wellbeing to drive positive change within the veterinary profession.
On Tuesday 6th July 2021, I had the privilege of attending the Courageous Conversations Conference run by the University of Surrey School of Veterinary Medicine in collaboration with the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society (BVEDS). The conference was launched last year to provide a platform for students and colleagues championing equality and diversity within veterinary education. As the new Mind Matters Initiative Officer, I was keen to learn as much as possible about the challenges facing minority groups within the veterinary profession, and what is being done to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.
The conference was opened by Issa Robson of BVEDS, who warmly welcomed each and every one of us. It was clear from the start that this was going to be a safe space free of judgment where everyone could feel comfortable speaking honestly and openly about their experiences. She introduced the programme which included topics such as Neurodiversity, Decolonising the curriculum, GRT (Gypsy, Roma, Traveller) Inclusivity in Veterinary Education, and student facilitated workshops for ADHD, Autism & Dyslexia. There were also interactive workshops run by British Chronic Illness Society (BCVIS) and British Veterinary LGBT+ (BVLGBT+).
Progress…one year on
After Issa’s welcome speech, attention then shifted to the panel, who shared just some of the fantastic work which had been achieved since last year’s Courageous Conversations Conference.
First to reflect was Kate Oliver from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) who helped create the Widening Participation (WP) Vet School Network after meeting likeminded professionals at last year’s conference. WP aims to make the veterinary world more accessible to students from underrepresented backgrounds who may not otherwise consider applying to vet school.
WP are currently running several successful projects, including a scholarship programme and summer school programme, which provides in depth courses for underrepresented groups on how to get into vet school. These programmes have proven to be highly successful, with almost 80% of recent participants reporting an increase in confidence in becoming a vet.
BVA good workplaces:
Next up was Daniela Dos Santos from the BVA who introduced us to the findings of the BVA Good Workplaces Report. This work was a joint venture from the BVA and VetFutures who recognised that people need to feel valued, accepted and have access to role models if they are likely to stay in the profession. Creating an inclusive, supportive working environment where people feel comfortable to be themselves is hugely important when it comes to staff retention.
The BVA are asking practices to commit to their Good Veterinary Workplaces Voluntary Code which aims to address the challenges encountered in veterinary workplaces. The code includes 64 practical recommendations for employers on how to create a more supportive working environment. There is also a workbook which employers and employees can look through together to see how they can work towards a becoming a better workplace.
Additionally, the BVA are currently running a webinar series in collaboration with VDS training to discuss key workplace challenges.
Then it was over to Claire Hodgson from BVCIS who spoke about her work supporting those with chronic illnesses. The BVCIS is in the final stages of becoming a registered charity and has already done lots of amazing work to help those suffering with chronic illnesses feel more supported in the profession.
Over the past year, the BVCIS ran two community groups allowing likeminded people to come together to discuss the barriers facing those with chronic illness in the veterinary world. Key themes included feeling like an outsider, the inability to attend social events due to the assumption that everyone is able-bodied, the expectation and pressure of working long hours, and the need for greater understanding of what support is available to chronically ill students.
Claire also ran a panel session and workshop at this year’s Courageous Conversations Conference on how to navigate university, knowing your rights and what resources are available to you as a chronically ill student and how to apply for your first job.
Despite not having attended any of the workshops (these were more student-focussed), I attended two panel discussions which were thoroughly insightful. The first was ‘Neurodiversity and Disability: from class to clinic’, and the second the ‘BCVIS Chronic Illness and Disability Panel’. Both sessions were delivered by both colleagues and students. This was a particularly effective set-up as it allowed the audience to become fully engaged in the topics being discussed – everyone felt represented. The students were willing to speak out and give first-hand accounts of the difficulties they had experienced at university and the colleagues were there to listen and discuss ways in which to make vet student life more inclusive (many of the colleagues themselves had also had to overcome similar challenges whilst at university which made the whole event much more relatable). It was an open collaborative learning experience which was highly productive for everyone involved.
I personally found demystifying the disability assessment process and student disability allowance particularly useful. Having been diagnosed with ADHD myself during my final year of university, I could relate to how difficult it can be when it comes to the difficulties in knowing what support is available to you and how to access it. Then there’s the stigma…the voice in your head saying “what if people think I’m just trying to cheat?” “What if I just need to work harder and I’m not worthy of the extra support?” “How do I access support in the first place?” “What forms of support am I eligible for?” This can be stressful for anyone, let alone for those who are already vulnerable and slowly drowning in the immense workload of being a veterinary student! (It’s worth noting that I didn’t study veterinary, so I can only imagine how tough it must be for those with chronic illnesses to try to keep up with the physical demands of the training along with all the studying). The panel offered practical advice on how to access support and opened the floor to questions.
Across all discussions, there was one common theme that kept arising: the need to break down stigmas. Many students expressed they hadn’t previously wanted to seek support because they were afraid of being perceived as incapable. They therefore had no idea about the kind of resources they could access. As one student rightly pointed out, it ultimately all comes down to clear communication. People need to feel confident enough to communicate their needs and learn not to be ashamed of the things they can’t do, but rather celebrate the things they’re brilliant at. The profession needs to make it clear that they will be heard without judgement.
Life would be boring if we all acted in the same way, saw things in the same way and had the same ideas which is exactly why diversity should be celebrated. We cannot hope to advance the profession or society without it. We all have value, and all bring something different to the table. Courageous Conversations has provided the perfect launchpad for change. There were so many people involved in the conference from so many different backgrounds, but everyone was working towards the same goal. There is strength in being “different” and that should always be celebrated.
Final thoughts moving forward…
My main takeaway from my first ever veterinary event is that there is still a lot of work to be done to make the veterinary world a more inclusive, accessible and diverse place. However, so much more can be achieved when we work together and that’s exactly what is being done with the students, colleagues and organisations involved in Courageous Conversations. We have to support each other as change can’t be created alone.
As the Mind Matters Initiative Officer, I’m working more specifically on improving mental health in the profession, but that alone isn’t enough to make lasting positive change. It’s essential that we all gain a solid understanding of the interconnectedness and complexity of creating a happy, healthy and productive community. Mental health, physical health, diversity, and inclusivity may seem like separate entities, but we cannot hope to move forward unless we work together to abolish the stigma that being so-called “different” is bad…because “different” isn’t bad. It’s essential. “Different” drives positive change.
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