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Taking care of your mental health – Part 1: Support Networks

Veterinary science can be a fantastic career – it’s challenging, rewarding and rarely dull. But there’s no escaping the fact it can be stressful at times, too. Stress is a normal and unavoidable part of life, and a degree of stress in our lives can actually be helpful. After all, stress is what drives us to study that bit harder to pass an exam or double-check that that ovarian pedicle isn’t bleeding. But when stress isn’t managed properly, it can become overwhelming and have a serious impact on mental health.

Mental health and the veterinary profession

Awareness of mental health problems within the veterinary profession has increased in recent years after several studies reported higher than expected levels of stress and depression among vets and vet students. Anxiety, substance abuse and self-harm have also been recognised as concerns for some vets.

Factors identified as contributing to mental health problems in veterinary staff include lack of professional and personal support, poor work-life balance, isolation, ineffective communication, demanding or unrealistic clients, and the often heavy emotional toll associated with caring for much-loved and valuable animals.

Taking control

While this all sounds rather gloomy, it’s important to realise that mental health problems don’t have to be an inevitable part of being a vet. Just as a healthy diet and regular exercise help to maintain your physical health, there are steps you can take to actively manage your mental health. Over the next few blog entries, we’ll discuss some strategies for doing exactly that, including:

  • Establishing a support network – both professional and personal
  • Avoiding isolation
  • Maintaining a life outside of work
  • Expressing gratitude
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Managing stress
  • Making sure you’re in the right job – and the right profession.

Lean on me – Establishing a support network

Life as a vet can be very demanding, particularly if you work long hours and are on call regularly. A good support network – both professional and personal – is critical for maintaining a healthy mindset.

While a supportive employer is something we all hope to find, sometimes the pressures of managing a business and family commitments may mean your boss can’t always give you the time that you might need. The good news is professional support can also be found elsewhere. Experienced vets within or outside of your practice can be valuable resources for everything from managing complex clinical cases to improving your work-life balance and learning how to ‘switch off’ outside of work hours.

Some vets use a formal system of mentoring, like that offered to recent graduates by many divisions of the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), whereas others might call on contacts they have made through university practical placements or continuing education. Regardless of how you connect, the important thing is that you feel comfortable contacting your mentor in times of need and that they can offer you encouragement – and, hopefully, some practical advice – to help address your concerns and move forward.

Family and friends shouldn’t be underestimated as a source of support. While they might not have the insight to understand all the professional challenges associated with being a vet, they can help you maintain your perspective and remind you that you are a good person when you’re particularly hard on yourself.

Regular “debriefing” sessions are essential for helping you process your thoughts when you’re in a stressful job – as most vets are. Putting the thoughts that swirl around your head into words for a sympathetic ear can really help you to clarify them, resolve any issues that you are having and move on, rather than leaving them vague and unprocessed. An outsider can also help you to keep your concerns in perspective when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Even if it doesn’t solve all your problems, a good vent from time to time just makes you feel better!

If you’re struggling to cope or feeling really overwhelmed, be it professionally or personally, remember that you should always call on professional help. Clinical psychologists and other allied mental health professionals, such as counsellors and social workers, can help you develop strategies and use proven clinical techniques to help you manage your concerns. There is no shame in seeking help to deal with mental health issues. Just as you consult a health professional for any problems with your physical health, so you should for your mental health. Seeking help early offers your best chance of getting back on track sooner.

The AVA offers its members a free 24-hour confidential Telephone Counselling Service to help manage problems like stress, depression, anxiety, career issues and workplace conflict. They also offer a face-to-face counselling service. See www.ava.com.au/Thrive/how-we-help-you/ava-telephone-counselling-service/ for more information. Alternatively, your GP is a good starting point. In addition to referring you to an appropriate professional, your GP can also develop a Mental Health Treatment Plan, which allows you to access subsidised treatment and counselling services. You can find out more at www.healthdirect.gov.au/mental-health-treatment-plan

If you or someone you know needs immediate help, remember you can also contact Lifeline 24 hours a day on 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au

Coming up

In our next instalment on taking care of your mental health, we’ll focus on the importance of avoiding isolation, maintaining a life outside of work and the benefits of gratitude.

References
Smyth B. Some observations on the economics of the veterinary profession in Australia. Aust Vet J 2014; 92:N21–22.

If this article has raised any concerns, remember help is available:

Lifeline, 13 11 14, www.lifeline.org.au
Suicide Call Back Line 1300 659 467
Samaritans Anonymous Crisis Support line, 135247, www.thesamaritans.org.au
Beyond Blue, 1300 22 46 36, www.beyondblue.org.au
Kids Helpline (aged 5-25), 1800 55 1800, kidshelpline.com.au
Mental Health Emergency Response Line (MHERL) 1300 555 788

Last Updated: May 2024

DISCLAIMER: The above information is for guidance purposes only. Vetlink takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information, which is not intended as advice. We recommend you take advice from a suitably qualified professional. Vetlink takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information and does not endorse any individual or organisation. It is your responsibility to determine the suitability and qualifications of any individual or organisation.