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Dietitians, Perfectionism and Mental Health

“DIETITIANS; PERFECTIONISM AND MENTAL HEALTH”

Dietetics is built of perfectionistic people, but unfortunately as positive as that trait can be at times, it is often the undoing of so many.

There is a significant issue in our society with mental health and dietetics is no different. I think in dietetics there would be an even higher incidence, particularly around anxiety. I don’t know what it is about our profession but there are a lot of perfectionistic people. Many whom identify themselves as perfectionists, and just as many that say they realise it could be a “weakness”.

The issue with this of course that many of these dietitians then get a lot of anxiety around meeting their own perfectionistic standards, regardless of what their clients or their employer expects. They struggle with staying flexible, coping with things that go wrong, or issues that arise that they didn’t see being an issue. This is an issue.

Some anxiety can be powerful, bring you to a place out of your comfort zone and then once you see that you can cope and nail it, you end up being that much stronger. I think some anxiety is also associated with caring about what you do. Caring about your performance, caring about if you can help the next client who walks in the door; that is important. If you had no feeling, no emotion, that is when you should get worried. Obviously there are scales in this, what is “healthy” and “unhealthy” but it is something to be aware of.

Perfectionism of course, is not the only cause of anxiety but I am aware of many dietitians that this is the predominant reason.

I have found that the “high achievers” are the most at risk, often taking themselves to extraordinary lengths, near burnout, to keep pushing to the next thing.

Personally, I always thought of myself as a perfectionist as well. I am also a high achiever, but always knew I didn’t have the capabilities to be a straight HD student (which so many still believe is the only way to be successful). I worked hard, but also enjoyed time to myself throughout my studies. When starting my career though, that was different. I was, and am, somewhat impatient when it comes to my career. I wanted to work more and more, get better always, get better quicker than anyone else, get more experience than anyone else. That is why I worked 9 casual jobs at the same time, 7 days a week, between 6 and 15 hour days (including commuting up to 2 hours each way). I then worked in a singular role 6 days a week, 12+ hours a day including the 3hrs commuting each day, then expected to do additional unpaid work when I got home, and it almost broke me. I could feel it happening, and there were definitely a few tears at times.

I ended up being diagnosed with depression as a result, and subsequently left that role entirely. I just didn’t have the support I needed from my employer. Although usually incredibly resilient,

I didn’t have the coping mechanisms in place that I needed to get myself through it.

I told no one, and only a couple of people in my life know about that. Many of my family and friends don’t know, and here I am telling the world. The reason I haven’t told many is because I hate the whole “look at me I have a mental health condition” thing that is going around. I see many that use it as an attention seeking device, rather than one to increase awareness of it. This is the latter. I am passionate about helping others, passionate about preventing it happening to others in our profession. I am also writing this so that my staff know that I also understand. I am not flawless. I have struggled before, I know what you are going through, and I will do all I can to support you through it. And the truth is that these days I am so far removed from that.

I am so incredibly happy with my role and what I do. I honestly love it, and that has allowed me to work longer and harder than most see as reasonable.

One other dietitian whom I was close with, who actually did break due to their role and lack of support, around the same time I was struggling. They still struggle with anxiety (5-6 years on) and it has hampered them greatly. They were/are an amazing person and dietitian and I hate that that happened to them. I don’t want that to happen to anyone else.

That is why I have been very conscious about how I manage people, very conscious about the support networks I put in place for contractors and staff, very conscious about workloads, very conscious about personality traits, abilities and capacity. We do all we can to support our practitioner’s mental health and this year we are endeavouring to get on board a psychologist that our staff can anonymously talk to and be helped however possible. But creating an environment where practitioners feel comfortable talking to their manager or myself about it is even more important, and thankfully many have. I appreciate that trust more than anything.

Although I almost broke completely 5-6 years ago, I didn’t. But it gives me insight and more empathy for those that could be going through that or may be predisposed to feeling that way, which inevitably makes me a better manager and person.

Now I work more than I ever did, have more responsibility than I ever did, have more pressure on me than I ever did, but I don’t feel it.

Sure, you get those moments of stress, you get those levels of anxiety, but I don’t feel remotely close to breaking. Sure, I have times where I know I need that mental break, that moment to breathe, but I love what I am doing, and I think that alone allows me to perform at a higher level.

If you have a mental health condition, please tell your employer about it so they can help support you. If they don’t, punch them in the mouth ?. If you don’t feel comfortable with that, tell me. I will do whatever I can.

Again, this post isn’t for personal attention. I really have no interest in that. But if me telling all of you in this public forum means that my staff feel more comfortable discussing it with me in private, or that you feel more comfortable discussing it with your employer. I have achieved the goal. Here’s hoping.

 Tyson Tripcony,
Managing Director | Sports Dietitian