Veterinary Mental Health Awareness
Mental health awareness month isn’t until May, but at Harmony Veterinary Center, we know the importance of awareness that lasts all year. We’ve been grateful to see an increase of mental health awareness in the 21st century, especially after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has helped our practice develop a compassionate and friendly environment for patients, clients, and staff. However, the profession is both physically and mentally demanding. This affects veterinarians around the world, including at Harmony Veterinary Center.
A 2018 study done by Merck Animal Health determined from over 3,500 veterinarians that while only 5.3% of veterinarians were distressed (compared to 4.7% in the employed US population), 50% of veterinarians with mental illness were not receiving treatment or therapy. This may not seem like much, but it greatly affects many individuals, especially concerning issues like depression, compassion fatigue, burnout, and anxiety. Though these subjects are difficult to talk about, it’s important to understand mental health to support those around you, and yourself. We’ll be discussing mental health specific to veterinarians, but it matters for all pets and people. Don’t be afraid to take a moment to tell loved ones how much you appreciate them, and reach out when you’re in need of connection and support.
Depression and Anxiety
One of the great things about veterinarians is how hard they work, paying attention to the most miniscule details and the big picture for each of their patients. While this way of thinking greatly improves our practice, it is often done as a result of anxiety, and leads to even more anxiety when it is not addressed. Higher standards of care help animal health advance forward, but it also comes with a standard of perfection that can never be truly met. Expected health complications are often seen as mistakes by the veterinarian.
“The pressure to be perfect and meet the standards of care the profession and client are demanding without the financial backing to do all of the appropriate testing and care is the other big factor in suicides.” — Dr. Shelley Brown
So many stressors often lead veterinarians to see only one way out of their situation. A key finding from Merck Animal Health’s study was the increased likelihood of considering suicide. Overall, they are 2.7 times more likely to attempt suicide compared to non-veterinarians. Female veterinarians have higher rates of suicide ideation, but male veterinarians are more likely to attempt suicide. This is a serious issue for all genders and social identities.
Of course, these problems run deeper than just the veterinary field as they prevail in many professions, from staffing shortages to financial difficulties, and personal stresses on top of that. The majority of those in the veterinary profession are women, and must balance family obligations in addition to their time-consuming work. Overbearing pressure on many fronts is an overall societal problem that can only be eased with a collective conversation, hard work, and patience.
Compassion Fatigue and Burnout
Compared with physicians, veterinarians score higher overall in burnout. This is not necessarily related to how many hours someone works, but high burnout is most often seen in veterinarians who work 46 hours each week or more. Feelings of burnout are common, so discussing stress and mental health can help remove the stigma around mental health and help veterinarians feel less alone.
This issue is especially prevalent due to a nationwide veterinarian shortage, forcing many practices to turn away animals due to extreme backups and short staffing. In an industry already overworked and overwhelmed, this issue puts a lot of pressure on employees who strive to help as many animals as possible but continue hearing from families who need their help. So much pressure and a lack of support has led some staff members to leave the field altogether, which leaves clinics more short-staffed with increasing pressures.
“There’s definitely more stress, more grief. It really hurts when I’m unable to find a place to transfer a critical patient at the end of the day, or when I need to turn an animal away,” Dr. Virginia Jarvis at the Albany County Veterinary Hospital said with Times Union.
Especially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many practices were already facing delays. Increased demand for veterinary services stopped delays from resolving, resulting in countless animals not receiving the care they need. This in turn leads to owner surrenders and strays at animal shelters, which are overworked as well. The community as a whole feels stuck, and are working as hard as possible to persevere. We feel this impact as well at Harmony Veterinary Center, and provide a positive environment and resources for our staff to preserve well being as much as possible. But this doesn’t stop us from feeling the crisis.
If you’re looking for veterinary mental health support, consider the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative (VMHI), the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), or vetwellbeing.com for resources. You are not alone.
Another step that helps many veterinarians is creating a healthy stress management plan and balancing work with other activities. Some of our staff’s favorite activities outside of work include reading, going for walks, camping, paddle boarding, hiking, yoga, and spending time with our own pets. Finding a way to balance work time with free time is often quite difficult, but HVC has created an atmosphere of understanding, encouraging personal development, and increased self care.
Separating work from the rest of life also helps ease emotional stressors and burnout. “When I come home from work, I walk into the garage and I leave work behind as I walk through the door into my house. I greet my kitties, and go about enjoying my space,” Dr. Brown shares.
Like many of our staff members, Dr. Brown excels at not only working tirelessly to improve our clinic, but speaking out about genuine issues and encouraging a brave sort of vulnerability. The topic of mental health often seems overwhelming, potentially unsolvable, and it’s easiest to sweep this under the rug. But at the end of the day, we must take the first step by talking about mental stressors, being honest. In the future, Harmony Veterinary Center strives to incorporate more conversations around veterinary mental health. After all, mental health is a significant aspect of overall health for all animals and people. Normalizing conversations will reduce stigma and help our community find our way to a brighter future.