Mental health and resilience in the veterinary profession
Any of us who are or have been pet owners may find it hard to express the debt of gratitude we feel towards our vet for the challenging and often difficult job they do. It’s no surprise that many of those working in the profession consider it a vocation and were attracted to it not only because of a love for animals but also because they care deeply for the pet/owner relationship as well as the community they work within.
It is therefore easy to see that their job provides them with meaning which results in their motivation to do the job well. Believing in the meaning of the work you do is also a positive as far as your resilience is concerned as the basic need of a job to provide income is secondary to the value and impact it creates, building both your resilience and your engagement.
Why then, are cases of depression, stress and anxiety disproportionally high amongst veterinary professionals?
What are the statistics?
The results of the systematic review of the prevalence of suicide in veterinary surgeons (Platt et al, 2010) found from an analysis of the better quality studies, that suicide in the veterinary profession in the UK was at least 3 times that of the general population. More recent research places the figure at nearly 4 times that of the general population and double that of doctors and dentists.
What are the possible explanations?
When you consider the array of disciplines practiced by veterinary professionals within each working day, many varied explanations come to light including:
- If you take the character traits of people attracted to work in the profession which include perfectionism, caring nature, self-discipline and focus. And you add being unfamiliar with failure, poor coping strategies, a high stress work environment, low income (as compared to other health professionals), low self-esteem and a difficulty admitting you are struggling or feeling unwell. The result can be a worsening of early mental health issues, depression and anxiety.
- It is not a profession which fosters a healthy work/life balance – long, anti-social hours and a heavy workload – coupled with difficult and challenging client relations. Balancing the dedication to their animals with the expectations of farmers and pet owners who pay for their services, means they are both caring for the animal whilst supporting and managing the owner. An added complication is that we are not a country used to paying for health services, pet owners see high charges and imagine high salaries, leading to an expectation that their vet will offer help at reduced rates or for free because they must be an animal lover and won’t want to see an animal suffer.
- It has been recognised that veterinary professionals have an accessibility to drugs, particularly analgesics, which are reportedly often used inappropriately by the profession to relieve their own pain, both physical and psychological, even though they have the pharmacological knowledge to appreciate that these drugs are depressants.
- Research is continuing in this area but the fact that euthanasia is accepted practice in veterinary medicine has led to some believing that veterinary professionals can think it is a viable solution to problems in human life. Another area being researched in America is a potential link between having to repeatedly euthanise animals and developing a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Mental health and resilience in the veterinary profession
The statistics mentioned at the start of this piece also raise another consideration, looking after the team left behind after a temporary or permanent departure of one of its members. The benefits to a veterinary practice of both looking after individuals and the team can far outweigh the costs.
Many veterinary professionals fully appreciate that resilience skills can be developed and that working on them leads to benefits in both the workplace and their personal lives. These skills can also offer protection against negative outcomes such as burnout, depression, addiction and suicide. Resilience training can provide a space for discussion about attitudes towards, and acceptance of, a stressful workplace and its challenges. It also highlights the importance of the part played by self-care, self-awareness and positivity, both within each individual and from a supportive network.
Common problems raised by vets who have sought support include how to deal with unresolved and abnormal expressions of grief, challenging dilemmas, and managing lifelong issues which start to emerge when they experience a sudden failure to cope. Similar to the population as a whole, stigma regarding mental health conditions needs to be reduced in the veterinary profession, with communication around these issues being increased. It needs to be recognised that mental health conditions are illnesses which are treatable and, in most cases, will be recovered from. Training in mental health awareness provides an understanding of the common mental health conditions and leads to knowledge, confidence to talk and inclusion within a workplace.
Advice for bosses and employees
- Ensure support is available and is communicated
Make sure everyone is aware that although the practice appreciates it can’t protect individuals from the difficulties of the job, it can provide them with support and advice if they find that they’re experiencing difficulties.
- Share – both information and time
Firstly, accept that it isn’t easy for either individuals or the practice to create the time or the environment to do this. It can be achieved by small tokens as well as more organised events. Common courtesies can be shared daily costing little time but, when asked with meaning, can make a difference, “Morning, how are you?”. Simply remembering to say, “thank you” for a job well done and done well by the team. In addition, it is important to plan and ensure time is set aside for team bonding and social events.
We often find our courses being delivered as part of such a team bonding day. Specialist trainer Christine Clark explains,
“In my experience, the veterinary profession is an academic and emotional labour of love – way more impactful than other professions. It is difficult to maintain that essential physical and emotional separation which is required to rest, regroup and bolster emotional wellbeing. The profession will always ask a huge amount … committed, passionate individuals will be in danger of giving everything.
Veterinary staff tell me they find it traumatic to deal with family members presenting with animals (pets) too in some situations. All emotions are raw and this can present in a spectrum of ways. The staff have to absorb the trauma of pet owner psychological health, which is all too often intertwined with the poorly pet (friend), whilst performing at their best.
Enlightened practices are grasping the full spectrum of resources and training available to create psychologically robust environments with a whole practice approach.”
Feedback from our Mental Health Awareness courses –
“… course has really helped me understand some of the behaviours of individuals in my team and has given me the confidence and resources to help and support them in future.”
“The entire day was a great awareness into a taboo subject and really useful.”
And from our Developing Personal Resilience courses –
“A fantastic day and a very good use of my time. Thank you for challenging me and getting me to re-think.”
“It was amazing to have a whole day for this!”
“It is a great help to see yourself in difficult situations and detach from it, improve your reaction to it and see so many possibilities to sort it.”