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VOL. 42 | NO. 23 | Friday, June 8, 2018

UT's ‘veterinary social worker’ breaking new ground

By Nancy Henderson

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Elizabeth Strand was just 3 years old when the “extremely tenderhearted” toddler began questioning why humans suffer so much and wondering how she could help.

But it wasn’t until she was a teenager, and her mom went back to school to get a degree in pastoral counseling, that she became acquainted with the field of mental health and knew what she was destined to do.

Even so, it never occurred to Strand that someday she’d be the one to coin the term “veterinary social work” and do groundbreaking work in a new field linking animals with human behavior and emotions.

“People say, ‘You must’ve been a big animal lover,’” she recounts. “I never thought, ‘Oh, animals are the most wonderful thing in the world.’ We had pets. I liked my pets. But I hear people tell stories about how they always got along better with animals than they did with people and, you know, I didn’t really have that.”

Strand, 48, is not a veterinarian but a licensed clinical social worker, family therapist and the endowed “All Creatures Great and Small” clinical associate professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. She also is the university’s director of veterinary social work, a branch of social work she pioneered internationally that encompasses four main areas:

-- Animal-related grief and bereavement

-- The connection between animal abuse and violence against people

-- Pet therapy and other animal-assisted interaction

-- Compassion fatigue and conflict management.

About the last category, Strand notes, “Veterinarians experience (patient) death at five times the rate that human doctors do because animals’ lives are shorter. Also, veterinarians are charged with humane euthanasia.

“This carries with it moral stress, so veterinarians actually have a higher suicide rate than the general population. So a lot of work has been done to address the emotional toll of what veterinary medicine does to veterinarians.”

Animal therapy

“When most people hear ‘veterinary social work,’ they might think of someone showing up at their house to take away the dog,” says Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, assistant dean of student success at Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine in Harrogate. She took Strand’s veterinary ethics course during her first semester at the UT College of Veterinary Medicine.

“In reality, Dr. Strand is a foundational champion for mental health in veterinary education and the profession as a whole. … Her quiet, fierce work ethic is simply incredible to witness.

“I was impressed by her bold, thought-provoking questions and ability to facilitate sensitive discussion among a group of naïve, opinionated first-year vet students. She took it all in stride,” Johnson adds. “While she holds a Ph.D. and loves research, Dr. Strand maintains a comfortable sense of confidence and empathy that is so approachable.”

After earning her undergraduate degree in religious studies at Sewanee: The University of the South and teaching Latin for a short while, Strand, originally from Alabama, earned her master’s and doctorate degrees in social work at UT. While working on her Ph.D., she studied under several faculty members with an interest in veterinary medicine, including John New, an instructor in the College of Veterinary Medicine, and Ben Granger, the dean of the College of Social Work, who co-founded an animal therapy program called HABIT (Human Animal Bond in Tennessee). When Strand learned that Granger was looking for a psychiatric social worker to help veterinary students, she stepped up.

“I grabbed the opportunity and I worked really hard, and the idea of veterinary social work really was kind of an inspiration,” Strand says. “I read a lot in the literature. I worked in the clinics and kind of discovered the kind of human needs that were there. And then one night, I thought, ‘We have forensic social work. We have school social work. We have gerontological social work. This is veterinary social work.’ And that original model has held steady for all of these years and has gotten traction.”

‘They had to hire me’

While working on her doctorate, Strand became intrigued by the human-animal violence connection.

“Serial killers often include abuse of animals as a first sign that something is going wrong, and victims of domestic violence report that their perpetrators will harm their animals to keep their victims from leaving,” she explains. “During my research, I found that victims of domestic violence would delay leaving up to three months because they were concerned for the safety of their pets.”

In the spring of 2002, she used a graduate stipend from the College of Social Work to launch the new veterinary social work program with the help of two field students. Each day, she stood next to a vertical file bin that hung on a wall in the UT veterinary clinic and waited for someone to stop by and ask for help.

Eventually, veterinarians found out about her and came to her for advice about clients who refused to euthanize their terminally ill pets and others who were “difficult.” Sometimes they talked to her about how to resolve conflicts among their employees. She also spoke with pet owners, offering bereavement counseling and other services, and taught veterinary students.

“I was paid for 10 hours per week, and I worked 40 hours a week and made myself irreplaceable,” she recalls. “So they had to hire me.”

As time passed, more academic professionals started to call, wanting to know how to do the same thing at their schools. So Strand started a two-fold certificate program – one for master’s degree students, one for practicing social workers who wanted to “retool” their careers—and convinced the dean to hire more staff members.

Strand’s veterinary social work program has since grown in all aspects, including training, research and service. She is especially proud of the fact that veterinarians across the country are beginning to hire social workers. Earlier this year, she says, the Washington state-based Banfield Pet Hospital, which operates many of its 800 clinics inside PetSmart stores, posted an ad for one.

“It demonstrates that veterinary medicine is starting to recognize that they need to collaborate with mental health to serve the needs of both their employees and their clients,” she says. “For Banfield to hire somebody like me is huge.”

At UT, Strand is known as a generous mentor and friend to her students. Some graduates claim their careers are far more fulfilling than they would have been without her guidance.

“For me, participating in the VSW program at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville has been nothing short of transformative,” says Dr. Pamela Linden, clinical associate professor at the Stony Brook University School of Health, Technology and Management in Long Island, New York. “It is such a privilege to work with Dr. Strand. She is a compassionate, knowledgeable and fun person who makes you feel heard, valued and understood.”

Linden found out about Strand’s program three years ago and has since earned her VSW certificate. She now advises Stony Brook’s first animal-assisted therapy and has founded a pet loss support group as well as the first social work internship at Paumanok Veterinary Hospital in Patchogue, New York.

Johnson, who struggled academically in her second semester at UT, credits Strand’s counseling with helping her reach her goals. “With her help, I found my voice and the perspective I needed to be successful,” she acknowledges. “I tell people that my interactions with Dr. Strand changed the trajectory of my career because she saw something in me that I couldn’t at the time. My classmates and I called her the Emotional Jedi Wizard.”

Her dogs win

The field of veterinary medicine is just beginning to catch up with those that focus on humans, Strand says, thanks in part to a shift in the mindset of pet owners and practitioners.

“Our animals are way different in terms of how we relate to them than they used to be,” she explains. “Veterinarians used to deal with people who considered their animals to be property. Now dogs no longer hang out in the yard all the time. They’re very often in the actual bed. The bond has become much more similar to human-to-human relationships.”

And yes, she admits, her dogs Crockett and Chesterfield now sleep with her despite her lifelong determination to keep pets in a separate room at night. “They turned me,” she admits with a laugh. “Last night I actually had the thought that I’ve gone to the dark side, because those dogs were all over me.”

An introvert who can give “a good gregarious talk in front of 300 people but after it, I need to go hang out by myself,” Strand enjoys dancing and combing thrift stores for second-hand outfits. Her nickname as a child, she says, was the Costume Kid because she loved to dress up.

In her work, Strand has become more visionary and less hands-on than in the early days, although she still counsels a few students. She teaches, oversees research projects, and actively participates in numerous committee meetings, including those related to her current crusade to curb suicide among veterinarians. She recently founded SAVE (Suicide Awareness in Veterinary Education) to educate veterinary professionals and students about mental health issues and the resources that can help them.

In February, Strand received a 2018 President’s Award, the highest honor the university bestows on any UT employee.

Following in her parents’ footsteps, she is also an ordained interfaith minister, mediator and all-around peacemaker. Neither her mom nor dad preached for a living after completing their seminary studies; her father quickly traded the pulpit for an educator’s podium, and her mother became a pastoral counselor. Strand’s oldest brother is a Buddhist monk.

She doesn’t actively preach, although she will occasionally marry a couple if asked.

“I grew up in a home that had more than one religion and where the concept of meditation was not off the table. It was kind of normal, although my mom practiced a Christian version, which is centered in prayer,” she says. “One of the biggest sources of conflict on this earth is religion, so as an interfaith minister I see the purpose as peace building. My own orientation is very faithfully Christian, but because I was exposed to my brother, a Buddhist, I have a deep respect for all world religions and I’m very interested in people’s relationship with the divine.”

Strand is also devoted to fighting racism, another core value she inherited from her dad, who as the North Carolina state tennis champion back in his heyday, was the first to integrate the courts in Greensboro, she says. While earning her Ph.D., she and her colleagues founded study circles to facilitate dialogue about race relations.

Likewise, she says, “I cannot for the life of me separate human and animal suffering. If there is an animal in a home that’s being abused and the animal is suffering, it’s very likely that human beings are suffering in that environment as well. I don’t think that you can just address one without addressing the other. … I think that by attending to the human needs that arise at the intersection of veterinarian and social work practices, by taking care of veterinarians, by taking care of pet loss clients, by creating opportunities for people who have conflict about animals, I believe that we can reduce the suffering for both people and animals. That’s my purpose.”

Strand is pleased that the veterinary social work field she founded is still gaining momentum. “A Google search now turns up 8,000 hits with the term ‘veterinary social work,’ and that term got coined here,” she says. “So we did something right.”

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