Vets’ mental health a major concern *H&H Plus*

  • Research has shown that vets are at a greater risk than the average population of some mental health issues and suicide. H&H speaks to members of the profession about demand, client expectations and social media backlash

    MENTAL health in the veterinary industry is “getting worse” as depression and suicide remain major concerns, and issues such as higher expectations, increased demands and social media backlash contributing to stress.

    Previous studies have highlighted mental health concerns, showing that vets are at higher risk of serious psychological distress and suicide, while new research by the British Veterinary Association found 74% of 565 respondents were “very or quite concerned” about stress and burnout as a result of Covid.

    British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) president Lucy Grieve told H&H mental health concerns among vets are increasing and said the topic of suicide has been much considered following the research.

    “It’s been cited that as we are expected to deal with death regularly, with euthanising animals being a unique way of having to deal with death, we’re quite familiar with it and some have argued suicide becomes an easier option as a result,” she said.

    “That sounds raw, but the concept of euthanasia is part of our job so one could argue it’s not too big a step if you’re in a very dark place.”

    Mrs Grieve added that mental health issues in the industry are “multifactorial” but said stress is one of the biggest problems, as is being unable to “switch off”.

    “Often if something pops into a client’s head at 8pm they message you then. I’m not criticising owners, but not expecting a response until the next day is better,” she said.

    “It can subtly chip away at you if in your spare time you’re getting bombarded with messages. But we’re responsible for our own boundaries so vets should equally say ‘I’ll get back to you tomorrow,’ or not reply until the next day.”

    Mrs Grieve said clients’ expectations on fees can mean they want the best service, but are not comfortable with the cost.

    “Weighing up the animal’s needs with what the client is willing to pay is where a lot of stress enters. You’re trying to do your best with limitations, and that’s hard,” she said.

    MBM Veterinary Group equine vet Stephanie Walker told H&H she was aware of mental health concerns in the industry but did not know how bad the problem was until she graduated.

    “I went into vet school with the mindset that it’s going to be a tough job and I need to work hard, but on graduating in 2018, I realised it’s the mental capacity and emotions that are hard to deal with, even when you finish for the day,” she said, adding that the issues can affect office staff and nurses too.

    Dr Walker said suicide rates in the industry are “not getting any lower”, adding that she knew people who had taken their lives.

    “Any vet will know or know of someone who has committed suicide; I don’t think enough people know that,” she said. “It’s not to say there aren’t underlying personal circumstances but the job certainly has contributed. It’s heartbreaking.”

    Dr Walker said being a vet often “demands perfection”, and agreed client expectations around costs can add to stress.

    “You’ve got people’s pets’ lives at stake and that in itself is quite stressful. It’s a very caring profession and I think that’s where a lot of depression can come from, by almost caring too much,” she said.

    “I’ve been told ‘You’d do this for free if you cared’ – it’s not that we don’t care, but there’s no NHS for horses. With Covid especially, clients are under so much stress; we all are. Clients have a lot going on that we don’t see but I hope they might be the same with us; it’s a two-way street. You might have been to euthanise an animal, then the next client is unhappy you’re late and isn’t as kind as they could be. It’s the high expectations that are sometimes difficult.”

    IVC equine group veterinary advisor Graham Hunter agreed mental health is a “huge issue” in the industry, and said factors including how the job has changed, client demands and high expectations have had an impact.

    “Before, the attitude to mental health was ‘buck up’ but now it’s very highlighted,” he said. “Vets are often working alone, in the middle of the night, and these are huge pressures. If you’re sensitive, and out in this world where people can be brutal, you can see why people sometimes struggle.

    “Twenty years ago people were happy that you had done your best whereas now litigation against vets is very high. Clients want us to be honest, kind and listen, and that’s the basis of being a good vet – but the downside is you’re thrown into stressful situations.”


    DR HUNTER believes the industry is doing “as much as it can” with support for vets but said it would be helpful if vet schools included more on dealing with complaints and difficult clients.

    “If vets can learn from how to put things into perspective and not take things to heart and worry, it will help,” he said.

    Hawkedon Veterinary Surgery equine director Lorna Brokenshire-Dyke told H&H among the issues affecting mental health are public perception and social media posts accusing vets of “extortion” over fees.

    “When you see posts it’s just another nail in the coffin and it’s disheartening,” she said.

    “You think, ‘Is this really the perception of what we do, that we’re money-grabbing and not in it for the animals?’ We’re humans who feel just like anybody else – you’d have to be pretty immune to not let some of the comments affect you. Nobody is above criticism, but it’s about constructive criticism.

    “Not everybody has a thick skin and why should you? Anyone is at risk of mental health problems; no one is immune and now we’re more open, we’re discovering that. For the profession to be so far above others with mental health issues and suicide is a pretty desperate place, particularly because we’re a caring profession – we all went into it to help.”

    Support is available for vets from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Mind Matters Initiative, which last month launched a film with BEVA raising awareness of wellbeing challenges faced by vets. There is also charity Vetlife, and the Veterinary Defence Association, which provides legal advice.