The veterinarian industry is facing a mental health crisis, fuelled by prolonged stress, financial difficulties, and public misperception, says psychologist and expert Dr. Nadine Hamilton.
While it may seem like all furry cuddles from the outside, the reality is that vets face some of the highest suicide rates in the country – four times that of the average Australian and double that of a health-care worker.
It’s a statistic that staff members at Park Ridge Animal Hospital want to address. Business owner Kate Thomas explains.
‘I think most of the staff are pretty aware of the suicide problem in the industry. It’s a fairly small community so there’s not many degrees of separation when it happens.’
Park Ridge Animal Hospital runs a unique program called the Wellness Team that aims to address some of these mental health issues.
The team, which includes four nurses, a vet, and owner Ms. Thomas, host a training and wellness Day each month, shutting the clinic for staff to come together to discuss mental health, engage in activities and leave each other warm messages on anonymous notes.
‘We started shifting things from being incidental to quite intentional,’ explains Ms. Thomas. ‘It created this nice culture, and that was the beginning, and from there it just evolved.’
Ms. Thomas says it’s not uncommon to find a staff members’ locker plastered with these messages of support and gratitude.
Part of the team’s aim is to look out for fellow staff members who might be struggling.
‘If someone’s had a bad day we’ll put a little choccy with a note in their locker, just so they know we’ve noticed,’ explains Cassie O’Hare, Veterinarian Nurse and creator of the Wellness Team.
It’s an initiative that Park Ridge Animal Hospital has built from the ground up, and it hasn’t gone unnoticed in the industry. Ms. O’Hare explains.
‘A couple of staff members in the last few years have said to me that they really wanted to get the job here specifically because they saw that we do that within the industry. It’s not something that a lot of places do.’
Veterinarian Dr. Michael Whybird has experience in the industry and found Park Ridge’s approach refreshing.
‘The last clinics I worked at were big busy clinics and we never had anything like that. Here you could definitely feel there was a different vibe.’
‘I’ve found that here I have time to just think about cases. It doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up in the whole scheme of things, and [you’re] managing your day better and not feeling overwhelmed. And then you can consult and communicate better.’
‘I think it should be happening everywhere,’ says psychologist Dr. Nadine Hamilton, who runs the Love Your Pet, Love Your Vet charity to support struggling veterinarians and staff.
‘For them to be proactive it shows that they value their staff and take wellbeing seriously, and they want their staff to be able to enjoy their job and have that longevity in their careers.’
Members of the Wellness Team have Mental Health First Aid certifications, which educates them to observe the warning signs early on. Staff seeking professional help can access a partnered psychologist, paid for by the clinic and completely anonymous.
It’s all part of the team’s goal to break down the stigma surrounding mental health.
‘It’s good for staff to be aware of sensitivities and fragilities,’ says Ms. Thomas. ‘We’re all human, things happen in our lives, so it’s just acknowledging that that’s okay.’
Dr. Hamilton agrees.
‘I think that’s a huge benefit and I believe that to reduce the stigma around mental health and illness we need to be able to talk about it.’
Receptionist Natasha Quinnell, who previously worked as a hairdresser for twenty-seven years, says she’s never seen anything like the support shown at Park Ridge Animal Hospital.
‘It’s just a reminder that we’re here as a team,’ says Ms. Quinnell. ‘Everyone’s got each other’s back and I’ve never worked for a company that is so thoughtful for each other.’
Stress, Burnout and Emotional Blackmail
Stress and emotional turmoil are part of the everyday for veterinarian doctors and staff. Dr. Hamilton explains.
‘It’s this emotional rollercoaster of going from vaccinating a puppy to having an emergency where someone’s animal has significant traumatic injuries, then they’ll be euthanising someone’s fifteen-year-old pet. They’ve got to be on their go all the time.’
Compassion fatigue is another factor that can lead to deteriorated mental health, says Dr. Hamilton.
Ms. O’Hare explains.
‘Your patient care never changes, but sometimes you do have to learn to disconnect and not make that close bond with your patients. Especially if you know that maybe they’re not going to go home, because otherwise when you lose them it just ends up being too much.’
Another factor is ‘unrealistic expectations’ and ‘emotional blackmail’ by clients, who often expect an instant diagnosis without paying for it.
‘People assume euthanasia is the hardest thing, but one of the hardest things is dealing with difficult clients and trying to manage their expectations and emotions,’ says Ms. O’Hare.
‘There’s been vets out there that have been physically abused, verbally abused, threatened,’ says Dr. Hamilton.
Dr. Whybird shared his own experience in his first week at the clinic.
‘In my first week here I got Facebook slammed and people called me up calling me a puppy killer and saying, ‘kill yourself’. People in consults will laugh in your face when you talk about stuff, either costwise or what you’re going to do.’
It’s an issue that can fuelled by self-criticism.
‘Vets have a tendency to be high achievers,’ says Dr. Hamilton. ‘And when they’ve got customers having a go at them as well, it can be a recipe for disaster.’
Dr. Whybird concurs.
‘I think just being vets, to get into it you essentially need to be an overachiever. Even if you have one little downfall you feel bad about it.’
One of the most difficult criticisms vets and nurses face is that ‘they’re just in it for the money’, a criticism that does not meet the financial reality for staff or businesses.
After completing a five-year University degree and volunteering extensively in clinics, the average salary for veterinarians entering the profession is around $50 000 a year.
The realities of running a practise don’t fair up well either, with profit margins operating below 10% on average in Australia.
Part of the reality is that a visit to the vet is not covered by Medicare or subsidised in any way, a fact that is often overlooked when facing expensive vet bills.
‘It takes a lot to be able to keep us safe and the animals safe,’ says Dr. Whybird. ‘There’s a lot of intricate things involved that add to the costs as well.’
Ms. O’Hare explains.
‘It comes down to education, because when we go to the doctor, we have Medicare, whereas people don’t realise that that’s not an option for your pets, and you have to pay it upfront.’
There is currently a global vet shortage as doctors and nurses leave the industry within three to five years of practising.
Dr. Hamilton believes mental health solutions are needed for a mental health problem.
‘The more we can talk about it and normalise discussions around support and looking after ourselves, the better chance we have of reducing that stigma and then making a difference.’