It was Mental Health Awareness Week last week and I posted a very raw video about my own mental health journey. I spoke specifically about the mental health crisis the veterinary industry is in worldwide and I asked everyone to share the video as much as possible to raise awareness of this issue.
The video was my most watched video and had the most shares, but it still didn’t get shared much at all. Not even by my family and close friends. Not by friends and colleagues also in the industry. They watched it, liked it and some even commented, but few shared it. So my question really is why? Does the topic make you uncomfortable? Is it not something you want to be on your social media? Why is this topic not important enough for you to want to help for clicking that 'share' button? This is an honest question. What would it take for you to share this message? To help to spread awareness? This crisis is very well documented within the industry and in our vet-related magazines, websites, blogs etc. But it is far from common knowledge within the general population.
As a vet, I am 3-4 times more likely than you to commit suicide
Veterinary surgeons in the UK are 3-4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population (Platt et al., 2010). And there are similar results from every country that is carrying out research. Vetlife Helpline is a crisis support service for veterinary personnel. They received 1136 contacts during the first 3 months of 2020 compared to 685 contacts for the same period in 2019, and over the last 5 years the number of contacts have increased by 500%. With 20,000 active vets in the UK, these numbers speak for themselves. But keep in mind that these numbers don't include vets who have left the profession and are getting support elsewhere, nor does it include other veterinary personnel like nurses, receptionists, and animal care assistants.
As a vet I know that mental health within the profession is a complex, multifaceted issue. Some, but not all, of the contributing aspects include the type of personality that is attracted to becoming a vet in the first place, it is the workplace environment, the work load, the general nature of the work, public perception of the industry and the client relationship.
Let’s look at the concept of an NHS for pets. I won’t lie, I find this the most disgusting idea I have heard in a long time. I want to ask you - at what point did owning an animal become your right as a human and not a privilege? At what point did being financially responsible for you pet stop being your responsibility? At what point did it become the veterinary industry’s fault that you quite simply, should never have got a pet in the first place? Controversial? Maybe. But honestly the only people offended by my point of view will be the people who see pets as their right and don't think about any of the responsibilities that come along with pet ownership.
Owning an animal is a privilege. Full stop, no discussion. It is not your right. Owning a pet is a huge responsibility - not just financially. But unfortunately for many it is simply a decision that is made on a whim, driven by want, with no actual thought or planning. And this is where part of the source of our crisis begins. The lack of thought, the lack of planning, the lack of responsibility.Where does this come from? I have owned animals all my life and not once have I ever thought that their care, well-being, or financial responsibilities were anything but my responsibility. So when did this change?
There is a fundamental thought pattern within a portion of the general population that needs to shift for there to be any change. This fundamental shift will not only have a positive effect on the veterinary industry, it will also have a huge impact on all of the animal charities around the world that simply don’t have enough room or resources to cope with the number of abandoned or surrendered animals. The effect of the current mindset of many people effects the entire animal care industry, not just the veterinary profession.
The prospect of introducing an NHS for pets (while I know this was just a discussion topic and not a plan) is just going to further cultivate this already dangerous mindset of passing the responsibility to someone other than the animal owner. If your car breaks down, do you expect someone else to pay for it? No, so why is your pet someone else’s responsibility? It simply makes no sense.
By passing this responsibility onto the veterinary profession you are having a direct and significant impact on people’s mental health. I want you to imagine going to work every day and being faced with comments like these multiple times a day, every day.
Why won’t you do this for free? You’re meant to love animals.
You’re just a money hungry monster.
So my dog has to die because you want me to pay?
How can you live with yourself?
You should be ashamed of yourself, taking advantage of people like this.
But also dealing with the reality that you have to end an animal’s life simply because an owner has no money. Or because they didn’t take your advice sooner. Or because they have children and life is simply too busy now. Or they left their partner and neither of them want the animal anymore. So I ask again, when did being responsible for your own pet and everything that comes along with pet ownership stop being 100% the owner’s responsibility?
A mindset change needs to happen.
One of the biggest struggles I have with the mental health issues in our industry is that I feel like we are keeping it a secret. We aren’t trying to spread the word within the general population. We are focusing internally and trying to support staff within the profession, but we aren’t trying to focus on all of the causes. And honestly it may simply be because the thought of it is completely overwhelming. There are multiple aspects and how do we start to address all of them? The first step is simply starting a conversation, making people aware that there is a problem. If the general population is unaware of the crisis our industry is in, how can we ever hope to change it?
Help me start the conversation. If you are reading this and not sharing it - you are part of the problem. Silent support changes nothing. Change doesn’t happen by staying safe and sitting in your comfort zone. By avoiding uncomfortable situations. By not speaking up about what you believe is right. It’s not easy. It takes courage to speak up. But you could literally save a person’s life by doing it. Surely that is worth it? Surely your friend’s, partner’s, sister’s, brother’s life is worth a moment of being uncomfortable.
Start the conversation. Please.