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VET SPEAK: Unrealistic high expectations are causing mental health crisis among vets

By Alison Laurie-Chalmers

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Clients can help ease mental health concerns, says experienced vet Alison Laurie-Chalmers (inset).
Clients can help ease mental health concerns, says experienced vet Alison Laurie-Chalmers (inset).

The past few years at work have definitely been the toughest I have ever known working in general practice.

The Covid pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis, and working with vet staffing shortages due to a concerning real lack of general practice clinicians and colleague “burn out” has been accompanied by often unrealistic high expectations of veterinary care and outcomes nowadays, often fuelled by the media and on online veterinary “advisory” sites​, coupled with a dramatic increase in owners acquiring new pets during lockdown, and the escalation in “puppy farming” in recent years.

This chaotic “time-bomb” scenario has created a worrying looming “perfect storm” and I do really worry now for my colleagues looking ahead. Mental health is a big concern now within veterinary practice.

Good mental health is crucial for individuals in all professions, including the veterinary field. However, sadly, the sensitive nature of the work and the unique challenges that veterinary professionals face, can often take their toll on their own mental health. As a result, it is important to support and promote good mental health practices in the veterinary world, and to encourage and create an awareness of the innate, sensitive and caring nature of vets, and of the concerning high level of suicide within the veterinary profession.

During lockdown many people acquired new pets as company for themselves during those difficult times. Coupled along with this, the Highlands is an attractive area to live and move to, and the recently noted increase in new homes, means more families and more pets in the Highland area. This increase in the pet population has naturally increased the veterinary workload.

Veterinary professionals work in a highly emotional and challenging environment. They are tasked with the difficult responsibility of caring for a high volume of animals that are sick, injured or dying. They also support many clients through the difficult and emotional decision to euthanise a beloved pet, on a regular basis. They work closely with their clients, the pet owners, who are understandably highly emotionally invested in their pets, which can then lead to a concerning compassion fatigue, burnout, and other ongoing mental health issues for the clinicians involved.

Sadly, the veterinary profession has been found to have a high rate of suicide compared to many other professions. The reasons behind this are complex and can vary from individual to individual. However, some contributing factors include job-related stress, compassion fatigue, financial pressures, and a general lack of support.

It is important for our clients to understand this workload and also the sensitive nature of veterinary practitioners, and to support in encouraging good mental health practices for them. Clients can play an important role in creating a positive work environment for veterinary professionals by having an understanding of the stress of their job, by being patient and kind, by showing an appreciation for their work, by recognising the challenges they face and being supportive of them.

Additionally, veterinary practices themselves can take steps to promote good mental health practices among their staff. This can include ongoing support and by providing and encouraging an access to mental health resources, creating a positive work culture that values mental health, and by providing regular mental health training on coping skills, resilience and stress management.

Thankfully, recently the veterinary profession has benefited from an increased awareness and education about mental health issues. This includes providing resources and training on how to recognise the signs of mental health issues and how to deal with these, and by providing individual, tailored support and workload to any colleagues who may be struggling.

Promoting good, positive mental health practices in the veterinary world is important for the future wellbeing of veterinary professionals, and in turn will enable them to cope and be able to be there for the animals they care for.

I have worked at Crown Vets for over 21 years now, and I will be 40 years graduated this year. I plan to retire this summer. I worry for my younger colleagues looking ahead. Hopefully though, by encouraging an increased understanding and awareness of mental health issues within the veterinary profession, this will help.

Alison Laurie-Chalmers is a senior consultant at Crown Vets in Inverness.

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