Mental Health in Veterinary Medicine

Dear Readers,

I recently attended a Mental Health First Aid course so I am now a “Mental Health First Aider”. Many people have asked me what this actually means and unfortunately many have also initially thought I wasn’t serious when I told them.

In the veterinary profession mental health is an important part of the vets well being and good mental health results in a much happier lifestyle and enhances performance. This is also applicable to aspiring vets like myself, and our ability to have fun as well as study hard. The most important thing is to find that balance!

It has taken me a lot of time and I have put a lot of thought into how I could phrase this post, however if I could take away one thing from my course it would be to not be afraid of talking about mental health.

Mental health issues affect us as much as physical illness – the biggest problem is the stigma attached to mental health. People fear that if they talk about how they feel they will be pushed aside and thought of as ‘attention seeking’. They may feel as though they won’t get the promotion they wanted or an interview at a company they’ve always wanted to work for, living in fear that someone may find out their ‘secret’ of suffering with poor mental health and think less of them. Yet this attention is what they may well need to show themselves they have enough support around them to deal with whatever it is they’re struggling with. Just because people cannot directly see an illness definitely doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I have looked at some statistics on mental health specifically in the veterinary profession and I found that:

  • 5% of VET STUDENTS wouldn’t want anyone to know if they were suffering from a mental health problem
  • 1 in 4 people in the UK have experienced a mental health problem in the last year
  • According to the results of a 2012 study of veterinary surgeons with a history of suicidal thoughts or behaviour, which was published in Social Psychiatry & Psychiatric Epidemiology, half the participants had not talked with anyone about their problems because they felt guilty or ashamed.
  • 24.5% of males and 36.7% of females in veterinary medicine have experienced depressive episodes since leaving veterinary school, which is about one-and-a-half times the prevalence of a U.S. adult throughout their lifetime.

These are difficult statistics to read and I have purposefully left out some of the more shocking data. When attending the course I was asked by a lady “How are you coping with this? You are very young.” I found the comment very interesting, while yes I agree that some of the topics we covered were very profound I feel as though as young adults we are protected from topics such as suicidal crisis and psychosis and we tend to shy away from learning more about them. On the other hand, young people who have suffered with mental health issues may have isolated themselves resulting in the knowledge adolescents and teenagers have of mental health being very limited – perhaps this is the reason even adults believe myths and false information that society has made up about certain mental health conditions as a result of not knowing enough.

Everyone I know has in some way helped another person by listening when something has been bothering them, proving as humans we naturally do care about the feelings and thoughts had by a friend/peer. What we need to change is how we treat the idea of putting a ‘label’ or a name to the certain mental health problems – this label is nothing to be afraid of. Admitting you’re struggling to someone you trust, appears to be half the battle! A friend with a mental health problem is still a friend. The same person you have been friends with for 10 years is still the same person and it is a compliment to you if they feel they can trust you enough to tell you they are struggling with depression, anxiety or any mental health problem for that matter.

One of the important things to note about mental health in this occupation is the raised suicide rate in vets compared with other professions. On this course a lady mentioned she had heard this described as ‘the cowards way out’ or a ‘sign of weakness’. I hope that one day society will believe that the controversial and very difficult topic of assisted suicide in terminally ill people, will be seen as the same reason people chose to take their own lives when they feel their poor mental health is also terminal as they do not feel they could ask for the help and support they desperately need.

Thankfully wonderful organisations such as Mind Matters run by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons exist. They offer training and vet helpline numbers, which clearly shows the support for mental health is developing and increasing and that this area of society is heading in a very positive direction. The Mind Matters twitter page inspired me to look for a mental health first aid course and I have inserted the link to their website below:

Mental Health can still be controversial and people have many different ideas on certain issues. I would very much enjoy hearing your thoughts or am happy for people to get in contact with me if you would like to know more about the course I attended and how to sign up yourself!


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