5 Steps to Maintaining Your Mental Health in the Veterinary Field

16th May 2023
Healthy Habits
Mental Health
Mental Wellbeing

Republished and edited from an article by Missy Filarecki, CVPM, CCFP

One of the positive things to come out of the last few years of being in a pandemic is the emphasis and focus on mental health awareness and wellness. Many companies are now including some type of mental health benefit as part of an employee package, whether it be an employee assistance program (EAP) or access to mental health counsellors.

The pandemic shined a bright spotlight on the mental health issues happening in the veterinary field in particular. The veterinary field for many years has been suffering from compassion fatigue, depression and anxiety. However, issues reached a boiling point with the 2020 pet adoption boom mixed with a worldwide shortage of veterinarians, which became a volatile combination for veterinary workers. This created more pressure than ever to see as many animals as possible, while being repeatedly told they are not doing a good enough job and are charging way too much by the clients that they are trying to help. We knew that something had to give – our people needed support.

Step 1 – Recognising we need help

When veterinary professionals are facing these types of mental health issues, it is first recognizing that we need help that is so important. Ignoring the issue and bottling it up is no longer an option when maintaining mental wellness is the goal. Once we recognize that we need help, the next step can be the most challenging: what do we do now?

Step 2 – Mindfulness

The first step to self-maintaining mental health is mindfulness. Being mindful of our own feelings and emotions is a lot more difficult than it sounds. Our breath is one way to stay mindful and in the moment. If you recognize yourself starting to slip into a negative headspace, take a beat to accept the feelings. Ask yourself why you are feeling this way. Validate your feelings and take deep cleansing breaths in and out for a few moments to centre yourself. Step out into nature for a moment if you need to. There is nothing more important than your own well-being, so make the time to centre yourself in times of need. Remind yourself that if it is a distraught client you are dealing with, it is almost never about you.

Step 3 – Self-care

Another step you can take to maintaining your mental health is setting aside time to take care of yourself and do something you enjoy. It is difficult to build healthy habits for ourselves, and it starts with structure and a schedule. If you enjoy painting, for example, try starting off with setting aside two days a week to paint for 20 minutes. Stick to it for a couple of weeks and then see if you can increase until it becomes part of your routine, and you no longer have to build it into your schedule.

Step 4 – Healthy habits

Of course, your own physical health is related to mental health: making sure to drink enough water, eating foods that are good for your mind. Staying active and stretching your body daily can boost your mood. Do things that your body will thank you for. Get that massage, take that yoga class. Go for that run you’ve been putting off. Movement and interaction with yourself can go a long way for wellness.

Step 5 – Support

All of these things are great in theory; however, sometimes mental health is not self-manageable. Recognize that sometimes we need help from other people, and accept that help can be the most difficult, and most important, step of maintaining a healthy mindset.

Managing your team’s mental wellbeing

Let’s look beyond what we do for ourselves to manage our own well-being. It is the responsibility of the veterinary managers to ensure their team is as protected as they can be from falling into a mental health decline. There are many tools and programs that can assist so that the veterinary manager is not taking the burden of managing the mental health issues of their team. While a manager can have a great ear to listen, they are not trained to be able to help as a mental health professional would. Enrolling the practice in a benefit package that support mental health is a great way to proactively manage mental wellness.

An employee assistance program
Every company should invest in an employee assistance program to assist with their team’s mental health needs. An EAP offers counselling and therapy to the team at the cost of the company. All employees should have easy access to the EAP information and be reminded of it on a regular basis. All they discuss is confidential, so employees can discuss things they may not want their employer to know.

Compassion fatigue counsellor
Another important resource is having a compassion fatigue counsellor on retainer. Most veterinary employees who are suffering from mental health issues have compassion fatigue. In the veterinary industry, compassion fatigue is common to experience. Veterinary workers are generally caretakers who put their patients’ well-being before their own. Compassion fatigue comes from the feeling of helplessness to alleviate suffering. Caretakers naturally want to heal, and we can’t heal them all. When becoming emotionally involved in a case, it is difficult enough to not be able to help. Managing the client’s emotions in the face of the suffering can make an already difficult situation more challenging. Having a professional on retainer to know how to help work through compassion fatigue is a must in today’s veterinary field.

Veterinary managers are also in charge of maintaining the practice’s culture. The culture of any business can potentially be detrimental to the team’s wellness as a whole. One toxic person in a team will create a toxic atmosphere. Communicating with management in these situations is the best way to resolve the problem as sometimes it isn’t overly apparent. If all attempts to resolve a toxic situation fail, sometimes removing yourself from that situation is for the best if those who should change it don’t do anything to evoke that change.

The emphasis on mental health in the veterinary field is going in the right direction and needs to keep going. Mental health is just as important, if not more important, than physical health. Taking care of one’s own needs is just the beginning to maintaining a healthy life balance.