We know that workplace stress and personal burnout are common amongst veterinarians for numerous reasons. In fact, research shows that 30.6% of veterinarians suffer stress, 25.6% have depression and 26.4% are affected by work-related burnout. Furthermore, vets are four times more likely to die by suicide compared to the general population.
These are scary facts, but it is important that people are aware of these figures. After all, if we fail to recognise the issues, how can we do anything to address them?
Defining mental health
While the term ‘mental health’ is often used to reference conditions such as depression, anxiety and psychosis, this isn’t its definition. The World Health Organisation refers to mental health as “a state of wellbeing in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
It’s imperative for everyone to understand mental health in order to be able to assess his or her own state. Signs of good mental wellbeing include:
- Positive social relationships
- Feeling loved and valued
- Feeling your life has meaning
- Able to achieve what you set out to complete daily
- Feeling physically fit or able
Just like human health in general, a person’s mental wellbeing is not fixed. It can alter and change and is dependent on many factors. However, being aware of the importance of good mental health and checking in with yourself regularly is key.
Mental health conditions
Firstly, it’s important to recognise that mental health problems are common, particularly anxiety, depression and misuse of drugs and/or alcohol. In fact, during the past year, approximately one in five Australians will have been affected by a mental health problem.
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health illnesses. In any year, anxiety disorders affect 14.4% of Australians aged 16-85.
Sure, it’s true that we all experience feelings of anxiety from time to time. So how do you know when you have a problem with anxiety? According to Mental Health First Aid Australia, ‘anxiety problems differ from normal anxiety in the following ways. They are:
- More severe
- Longer lasting
- Interfere with the person’s work, other activities or relationships.
Anxiety affects a person’s thinking, feelings, behaviour and physical health. Symptoms may include:
- Poor concentration
- Racing mind
- Excessive fear or worry
- Sleep disturbance
- Increased heart rate
- Shortness of breath or shallow breathing
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea
- Muscle aches and pain (particularly around the neck, shoulders and back)
Early intervention is important for any mental health concern, but especially as severe anxiety can lead to depression.
Just like with anxiety, we can all feel depressed (miserable or rundown) from time to time but this is a feeling that usually passes. However, people with depression endure the symptoms of depressive disorder for weeks and even months.
A key sign you have depression is feeling sad or miserable for more than two weeks. Additionally, you can’t gain pleasure or enjoyment from activities that would have once brought your joy.
Other signs and symptoms of depression include:
- Lack of energy, fatigue
- Feeling worthless
- Thinking about death
- Inability to concentrate
- Difficulty making decisions
- Moving more slowly or becoming very agitated
- Changes in sleeping pattern (could be difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much)
- Changes in eating (loss of interest in food or overeating)
While burnout is not a medical condition, illnesses such as anxiety or depressive disorder can often lead to burnout. Likewise, job burnout can negatively affect your mental wellbeing and bring on anxiety and depression.
So, despite not being a mental illness, burnout can be considered a mental health issue. Indeed, according to the WHO, burnout is characterised by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.’
Burnout is common in the veterinary profession. As such, it’s essential to understand the causes in order to prevent the condition. Possible causes include:
- Overburdened and, as a result, in a constant state of stress
- Lack of social support, leading to feelings of isolation
- Losing an animal, due to sickness, injury or euthanasia
- Emotional exhaustion brought on by managing clients’ grief
- Negative work culture
- Lack of balance between work and home life, which can increase stress, anxiety and feelings of guilt
Taking action for mental wellbeing
Certainly, the best way to prevent mental health illness is to prevent the problems from occurring. To be able to do this it’s important to recognise the signs and also understand the risk factors.
For example, risk factors for depression include lack of social or family support, a family history of depression, being female, having anxiety, becoming a new parent and experiencing an adverse event.
Regularly practicing self-care, such as eating a healthy balanced diet, getting frequent exercise, catching up with friends and sleeping well, can also be useful.
According to Vet Life Australia, stress, depression and burnout are three common mental health conditions affecting Aussie veterinarians. Nonetheless, many people don’t recognise when they have a problem. For some people, this can lead to an over-reliance on alcohol or drugs to hide their feelings.
A really great resource is the anxiety and depression checklist (K10), which can be found on the Beyond Blue website. This simple checklist asks you to consider how you’ve been feeling over the past month. It helps you to identify any signs of depression or anxiety. The results can be printed off and taken to your GP. It’s a wonderful way to start the conversation and help seek the support you need to get well. It’s vital to recognise that there is support available and to not lose hope.
If there’s one thing you do this week, have a conversation about mental health. Talking openly and honestly about mental health in your clinic can go a long way towards reducing the stigma.
Why not also get involved in one of the many initiatives designed to raise awareness of mental health. For example, organize a walk, hold a coffee morning, or get involved in National Mental Health Month (October) or Movember. Any action you can take to encourage supportive conversations is a step in the right direction.
Photo by Matthew Ball on Unsplash