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How to Develop a Mental Health Program for Veterinary Staff

One of the greatest challenges facing veterinary care professionals at all levels is mental healthcare. Mental health is lagging behind physical health in terms of attention and understanding, as well as access to care, throughout the United States and elsewhere around the world. Unfortunately, veterinarians are in a difficult position, above and beyond many others.

Vets are care professionals, which means in addition to the stresses and challenges of working with the public and providing a service, they also have the emotional burden of empathy and caring for patients who are not always treatable. It's always difficult for people to vent their frustrations and emotions in healthy ways, whether it's yelling at a retail worker or at a veterinary nurse, but it's made all the worse when it's not a retail purchase but the health and well-being of a beloved animal on the line.

Add to this the ongoing vet shortage, and you have a recipe for a mental health crisis, the likes of which have rarely been seen. Over two-thirds of veterinary care professionals report mental health troubles, ranging from anxiety and panic attacks to depression to burnout and compassion fatigue.

Unhealthy coping mechanisms also couple with external sources of stress like student loan debt, the struggle to keep a practice financially solvent while providing accessible care, and the general state of the world. All in all, veterinary practitioners are struggling the world over, and it needs to be addressed.

As a vet and as the owner of a practice, you can help by setting up, developing, and implementing a mental health program for you, your partners, and your staff. Here's our guide on how.

Understand Mental Health Challenges in Veterinary Care

Mental health challenges in veterinary care come in many forms, but they typically all relate back to the same groups of stressors.

  • Financial. Vets undergo significant education, and education is getting more and more expensive every year. Significant debts, along with the issues of keeping a practice afloat while providing care to as many as possible, mean that compensation lags behind. This is coupled with the ongoing inflation and price gouging rampant throughout the country today, which have become a significant source of stress.

  • Behavioral. Stress is compounded by physical and behavioral habits that add a burden to the body. These can be as minor as chronic dehydration caused by a busy work schedule, a poor diet, drug or alcohol abuse, a lack of quality sleep, or all of the above. Add to this the risk of personal health emergencies, injuries, and other physical healthcare issues, and it can become a force multiplier for mental health problems.

  • Cognitive. Many people suffer from mental health challenges today, including generalized anxiety disorder, depression, and similar problems. Add to this the temporal issues like burnout and compassion fatigue, and you have a recipe for disaster. All of these are also sources of stress that are compounded by financial and behavioral factors.

Make no mistake; mental healthcare is a complex field, and it's truly not well understood. This is all before even considering additional recognition of neurodivergence, gender nonconformity, political and social stress, and much more.

The reason we mention all of this is two-fold. First, it's so that you can recognize the scope of the issue and your part in it, both for yourself and for the people who work with, for, and around you. Second, so that you can recognize that it's not something you can fix on your own. At the end of the day, a large portion of mental health is social and societal, and there's only so much you can do at an individual level (even as an employer) to help.

To be clear, this isn't a reason to give up and do nothing. It's simply a way to let you know that any effort you put in can bear fruit and help alleviate the burden on yourself and others and that there's always help available somewhere; it's just a matter of finding it.

Learn to Recognize the Signs of Mental Health Struggles

Every person experiences stress and handles their own burdens differently. Some people struggle more visibly than others, but that doesn't mean someone who isn't visibly struggling is fine. Suicide, often seemingly sudden, is far too common in the veterinary medicine field.

Learning to recognize the signs involves two things: introspection and observation.

Introspection is the ability to look at yourself, turn your gaze inward, and examine everything, from your behaviors to your thoughts. Things to look for include, but are not limited to:

  • Feeling anxious or worried about everything, even things you should be confident in.

  • Physical signs of anxiety, such as heart palpitations, sweating, chest tightness, headache, dizziness, or restlessness.

  • Feelings of depression or unhappiness.

  • Loss of interest in the things that once brought you joy; Apathy.

  • Sudden changes in mood and emotional outbursts.

  • Problems sleeping.

  • Changes in appetite or weight.

  • Feeling guilty or worthless, like a failure.

  • Suicidal thoughts or ideation.

  • Excessive "highs" of excitement and joy, coupled with impulsive decision-making.

  • High-risk behavior.

There are also obvious physical problems, ranging from pain to substance abuse, that can be a sign of underlying mental health struggles. Turning your eye inward and examining the way you feel, think, and behave can help you identify trends and signs that you are struggling or suffering.

Observation is the ability to look at others around you and look for similar signs and symptoms. Some, obviously, you won't be able to observe; no one can read the thoughts of another. However, if your coworkers, partners, or employees express signs like:

  • Sudden emotional outbursts and mood swings.

  • Apathy and poor performance, particularly in areas they've aced before.

  • Visible changes in habits and weight.

  • Self-deprecation, particularly outside of humor.

  • Frequent unscheduled and/or unexplained absences.

These are some of the signs that the individual may be struggling. You can read through a more complete checklist here.

Destigmatize Discussions of Mental Health

One critical aspect of being able to set up a mental health program for your practice is destigmatizing discussions of mental health. Talking about these things is hard, especially when you're already suffering. It's even harder if you don't think others will listen, take you seriously, or be able to provide any means of support.

One key element here is to recognize that even talking about or acknowledging mental health is another potential source of stress. Add to this the fact that taking a leave of absence for mental health is generally not supported by many employers, and you can see that the very discussion of mental health can lead to job and income insecurity, which further compounds that stress.

Part of your mental health support program must be a way to discuss and address mental health concerns before they reach a breaking point and without the risk of punitive action. Even if your company policy says that X number of absences means termination, it's better to change the policy.

Tools to help may include anonymous or one-on-one discussions or providing nonjudgmental third-party options. There's no right answer, and the field of mental healthcare is constantly changing, so be sure to revise and explore your options periodically.

Provide Support for Everyone in Your Practice

Mental health concerns are not limited to your veterinary practitioners. Everyone in your practice, from the front desk receptionist to the veterinary nurses to your veterinary partners to your administrative staff, should be covered under the same level of access to care. After all, your practice can't operate without these people, and many of them even serve as buffers for some of the stressors that would otherwise affect you.

For example, front desk workers often handle irate clients and de-escalate situations before you can address them; that confrontation can be a huge source of stress.

Know Who to Contact, Locally and Nationally

Help is out there.

Help is available no matter the scope of your struggle; even if others "have it worse," you still deserve help.

You aren't "taking away" assistance that others could "use more than you."

There are many resources for mental healthcare available. Some are veterinary-specific, while others are available to pretty much anyone. We cover several of these in greater detail here. In brief:

  • Not One More Vet, a veterinarian-specific mental health and counseling service with mental health mentorship and a robust list of resources for further assistance.

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Billed as the "911 for mental health", this service can be accessed by calling or texting 988 anywhere in the country at any time.

  • Shanti's Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, a social justice and mental health support organization located in San Francisco, with national reach.

  • The American Veterinary Medical Association's "Get Help" page, which offers links to a variety of mental health and counseling services, as well as discussions and peer support for veterinarians.

  • 1 Life Connected, a low-stakes, low-level resource for stress relief and more "minor" mental health concerns.

  • The Suicide Prevention Resource Center, another national organization that does what it says on the tin.

  • Our own mental health consulting and counseling services here at Hope Vet.

Build a list of resources, including these more national-level resources and any local city-level, state-level, county-level, or more local resources you may be able to access. Make sure this list is readily available and accessible to your staff.

Recognize and Address (When Possible) the Causes

As mentioned above, as a veterinarian, you aren't really in a position to solve the social ills and systemic injustices that lead to mental health issues. Many such issues are simply too big to be addressed by individuals. However, that doesn't mean you're powerless.

There are a number of ways you can potentially address the root causes of some of the sources of stress that lead to mental health problems. While the specifics depend on both your circumstances and the personal situations of the people involved, some ideas include:

  • Offering free or lower-cost veterinary services to employees and their families, which can help alleviate a source of financial and some emotional stress if an employee's animal gets sick.

  • Ensuring proper and adequate compensation for your employees. Financial stress is a huge factor in mental health struggles, so making sure your employees are paid a fair living wage that accounts for the cost of living in your area is crucial.

  • Ensuring proper and adequate staffing for your practice. Employees – and yourself – can't practice self-care when you don't have the hours in the day left to do it. Being overworked, no matter how well you're compensated for it, is a recipe for almost certain burnout and other mental health issues.

  • Focus on teamwork, collaboration, and social connection; if there are problem employees that drag everyone else down, cutting them loose may be to the benefit of everyone else.

Many of these methods of support are expensive for the practice. Yet, without them, it's only a matter of time before the quality of care suffers, employees leave, and the whole practice goes under. It's usually worthwhile to seek out additional revenue streams so you can care for your staff rather than try to cut costs and weather the storm.

Know Your Limits and Boundaries

Another significant concern in veterinary care, and a primary cause of burnout, is trying to push yourself and your practice beyond your limits. You only have so much energy and time in a day, and if you're taking on the jobs of three people to keep your practice afloat, the house of cards is bound to fall.

One option to help address this is to offload some of the work. That's why we offer remote consulting services. When you have tricky cases in internal medicine, dermatology, oncology, neurology, or other specialized areas of care, we've got your back. You can request a consultation, and we'll offer our opinions on your case quickly and easily. Be confident in your decisions, get second opinions, and ensure you're providing the best possible care, all with a single consultation. We're here, if it helps.

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