In 2015 the RCVS launched the Mind Matters Initiative (MMI), aimed at improving the mental health and well-being of veterinary professionals. It was funded by the RCVS in a five-year, £1 million-pound commitment which has achieved so much over that time thanks to the vision and dedication of the team behind it. This pan-professional initiative brought together a taskforce comprising representatives from the key veterinary and veterinary nursing organisations.
When I first joined BEVA Council in 2012, the Association was already working to address mental health issues within the equine veterinary profession. After losing my job when I was eight months pregnant, I was given a supportive hand by BEVA past president Vicki Nicholls. She counselled me through the challenges I faced in trying to restart my career as an equine vet under the new constraints she was familiar with – those imposed by trying to raise a family alongside an equine veterinary career. Vicki was the brainchild behind BEVA’s MumsVet initiative and I was the first beneficiary. Concerns were also being raised about the physical dangers faced by equine vets on a daily basis, which resulted in the highly successful “Don’t Break Your Vet” campaign. Meanwhile, equine vet forums saw increasing discussions about both the physical and mental well-being of equine vets and interest grew in how we could help ourselves as a profession. Issues raised included a lack of flexible working options, lone-working, poor remuneration, poor retention and, of course, the high rates of depression and suicide, much of which is shared across the veterinary industry as a whole.
MMI was keen to hear about the factors affecting equine vets which were not being addressed elsewhere. BEVA spent time exploring these and identified similarities with other medical professions, such as patient/client expectations, business pressures, public perception and balancing animal welfare with financial constraints and client decisions. It was recognised that the nature of equine work could exacerbate certain pressures felt by vets on a daily basis.
The physical process of attending to the patient “at home”, sometimes spending long periods of time alone in the car, then similarly long periods of time dealing with one client, can generate familiarity between client and vet. Then, there are the pressures imposed by equine sport, even at hobby level, which can result in the challenge of trying to weigh up the balance between welfare and competitive gain. The horse owner’s desire for 24/7 access to healthcare and advice for their beloved horse whenever required can be an added pressure and a cost to personal life.
A wake-up call for many of us came during the debate at BEVA Congress 2015 when 92 percent of voters agreed that equine practice needed to change to become more compatible with family life. The highly respected and straight-talking Professor Derek Knottenbelt spoke movingly of how he awoke one morning to find three strangers in his bed… his wife and his two daughters. To a full lecture theatre suddenly affected by epiphora he recounted how that spurred him into redressing the work–life balance which had led to his missing out on so much of his family’s life. It felt like the proud and industrious veterinary profession had started to wake up and admit what the younger members have been trying to tell us.
It seems the once taboo subject of mental health and well-being has well and truly become an accepted topic of discussion for vets. If we wish to remain the strong, respected and admired profession that we have been for so long, then we ought to be demonstrating compassion and empathy for those within it.
The skills required to be a good vet are perhaps the same ones which lead many to the dark side of the psychological moon, so it is no surprise that we are not immune to the stressors and triggers which can so easily damage mental health. The best gift we can offer ourselves and our colleagues is to try to understand how and why our working practices can evoke these very human, but not always welcome, responses. If we are prepared for them, as a profession we can reduce the risk of them being driven underground where they can do more damage.
Fostering care within ourselves will filter out across our profession and allow access to the correct support and resources when needed. By familiarising ourselves with the issues involved, we are enabling our working practices to adapt and over time become more protective against those elements which serve to do us more emotional harm than good. We are always telling our clients how prevention is better than cure, so now is the time to employ that belief system within and utilise it to create a healthy environment for all those who wish to come and work, live and play within the veterinary profession.
The MMI has been fundamental in not just identifying and acknowledging the well-being and mental health issues which our profession faces, but also in providing access to the tools with which to address and manage them.