Vets at risk of mental health issues and suicide [H&H VIP]

  • Figures from the charity Mind state that one in four people has a mental health problem.

    However, those in some professions are more likely to be susceptible to conditions than others.

    According to past research vets are at high risk, but with increased awareness and funding, organisations including the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), the Veterinary Benevolent Fund (VBF) and the British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA) are taking steps to help.

    In December the RCVS launched the Mind Matters initiative — a scheme to help address mental health and wellbeing issues in vets.

    “Mental health is a significant issue for the veterinary profession. Most of us have experience of colleagues or ourselves having problems,” said Col. Neil Smith, RCVS vice-president and chair of the Mind Matters initiative.

    “We aim to encourage a culture that is better equipped to talk about and deal with stress and related mental health issues, and, ultimately, help to reduce such triggers within the profession,” added Col. Smith.

    High suicide rates

    A paper published in Veterinary Record in 2013, a cross-sectional study of mental health in UK veterinary undergraduates, looked at wellbeing (positive mental health) and mental ill-health of veterinary students from a single UK school, quantified using validated psychological scales.

    Of those that responded, 54% had experienced mental ill-health or problems with low self-esteem, with the majority reporting a first occurrence before veterinary school — the degree of mental distress in students was significantly higher than in the general population.

    Last year vets were warned by the industry to think seriously before specialising in horses, as a survey found that equine practice is officially labelled the most injurious civilian profession.

    The research discovered that horse vets are substantially more likely to sustain injury at work than firefighters, policemen, shipbuilders or members of the prison service — an estimated 164 of the 620 respondents were hurt per year.

    Vicki Nicholls, junior vice-president of BEVA, told H&H the danger of the profession was certainly a contributing factor to stress.

    “However, the problem of mental health is industry-wide and affects vets from all sectors.

    In the horse world we face particular contributing factors: equine veterinary work is especially dangerous, and a lot of time is spent on one’s own at anti-social hours,” she said.

    Another vet, who wished to remain unnamed, told H&H there had been “huge concerns” about mental health in the profession.

    “Not all your cases get better, and people can have unrealistic expectations about what one can do — plus the economics can be awkward in that vets are often perceived as expensive, and treatment is costly and can be unaffordable for owners,” they said.

    “Also the sad fact is that vets spend part of their working life putting animals to sleep and so potentially have the equipment or medication available for suicide, hence, tragically, it can become an available option.”

    What is being done?

    Earlier this month (13 February) the RCVS announced a total of £1m funding to address mental health and wellbeing, in the profession. Five hundred thousand pounds will go to the Mind Matters initiative over the next five years, and £500,000 to the separate Veterinary Surgeon’s Heath Support Programme (VSHSP) over the same time period.

    The VSHSP, independently run by the Veterinary Benevolent Fund (VBF), offers a confidential service that aims to combat problems with alcohol, drugs, eating disorders and other addictive and mental health issues.

    “It shows the College’s (RCVS) commitment in this vital area, and is a substantial amount that will really help change lives,” said Col. Smith.

    One recent and much-welcomed initiative is to ensure that calls from the veterinary profession to Vet Helpline, a confidential support service, are put directly through to a person.

    “We are able to offer confidential, non-judgemental support to vets who call us in distress,” said Rosie Allister, chair of the Vet Helpline, which is another arm of the VBF.

    “It takes real courage to reach out for help when you’re struggling. Callers need to speak to someone immediately — and not a message system — when they are in crisis.”

    Ms Nicholls, of BEVA, told H&H she doesn’t believe mental health issues are increasing, but rather that there is growing awareness of stress, anxiety, bullying and other issues.

    “There is currently no specific information on those suffering from mental health issues, nor those who ultimately take their own lives, but I am not unique in knowing at least one equine vet who reached this devastating decision,” she said.

    “Mental health is a serious issue, and any awareness we can create through the profession to spot signs earlier on is one step towards helping those who suffer.”

    A paper by the University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research in 2013 said there is an “increasing body of research to suggest that veterinary surgeons are significantly more likely to die by suicide than those in other healthcare professions and the general population.”

    Further research is being conducted into the reasons for this.

    ➤ The Vet Helpline number is 0303 040 2551 and there is also a confidential email service, accessible via http://www.vetlife.org.uk

    Ref: Horse & Hound; 26 February 2015