Veterinarians are four times more likely to take their own life than the general population and twice as more likely than any other healthcare profession*.
Mental health issues amongst veterinarians have steadily increased over the past 30 years and now with an uptake in pet ownership, the current skills shortage, and the stresses that comes with COVID in general, veterinarians are at higher risk than ever of suffering from mental health issues and burnout.
Dr. Cristy Secombe, Head of Veterinary and Public Affairs at the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) said COVID has impacted the industry in a variety of ways.
“Due to COVID, veterinary services have needed to be delivered in a different way – kerb side, split teams to ensure delivery of essential services whilst minimising contact with the community – this has led to increased workload on an already stretched work force, placing vets at a higher risk of mental health issues.”
Secombe said that the disrupted travel movements, both within Australia and internationally, have impacted on veterinary recruitment.
“International vets are an important skilled workforce for the Australian veterinary market and although vets have recently been included on the PMSOL list, the logistics of international vets coming to Australia to work remains very difficult at this time.”
The problems surrounding mental health within the veterinary industry were around long before COVID and Secombe believes that challenges within the job in general are a driving cause.
Dr. Claire Jenkins, veterinarian and founder of Vetchat, said that while it was a rewarding job, there are challenges.
“Often presenting animals are in crisis – we are trying to do best for the pet – often under financial constraint as unlike human health care there is no Medicare or government support. Veterinarians are empathetic and focus wholly on the care of the patient, which often doesn’t stop at the end of a shift.”
Many veterinarians join the industry as they have a strong affinity towards animals and a motivation to serve the community, however, they may find themselves in circumstances where they are unable to provide the level of care best required by the animal. This can be due to the owner’s circumstances, the beliefs and values the owner’s hold, or financial reasons, and these constant ethical challenges can be draining on their mental well-being.
“Many aspects of being a clinical vet are very rewarding, however, there can be aspects that vets find very challenging, both intrinsic or extrinsic. People may develop mental health issues when the threshold of these challenges is exceeded and the threshold varies for each individual and the factors that contribute also vary for each individual,” said Secombe.
The AVA has recently partnered with SuperFriend, an organisation that specialises in designing workplace mental health initiatives, to assist in developing a comprehensive wellness strategy for the profession.
“The project has just completed an extensive research stage, collecting the thoughts and experiences of those veterinarians ‘on the ground’, through extensive focus group discussions, one-on-one interviews and an industry-wide stakeholder survey completed by over 2,500 respondents.”
The AVA currently offers a range of services and resources to members including a confidential counselling service, an HR advisory service, a mental health first aid training program, as well as seminars around resilience, wellness and mental health.
If you are a veterinarian who is experiencing a difficult time, please call the Australian Veterinary Association on 1300 687 327 for confidential telephone counselling.
*(Hatch, P., Winefield, H., & Lievaart, J, (2011), Workplace stress, mental health and burnout of veterinarians in Australia. Australian Veterinarian Journal.)