Mental Health Awareness
Day in and day out, veterinarians do their best to care for their patients and support their clients. While the rewards can be immense, the sometimes difficult nature of caring professions like veterinary medicine can also lead to serious mental health concerns.
Knowing the signs of burnout and compassion fatigue in yourself and others, as well as how to get help, can go a long way to ensuring a balanced and successful work and personal life.
Why veterinarians need to talk about mental health
In 2014, a survey about mental health was conducted through the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), receiving 10,254 responses from veterinarians throughout the United States.
The survey found that:
- 6.8% of male and 10.9% of female veterinarians who responded had serious psychological distress, compared to 3.5% of male and 4.4% of female adult Americans
- 24.5% of male and 36.7% of female respondents experienced depressive episodes since graduating from veterinary school
- 14.4% of male and 19.1% of female respondents had suicidal thoughts
- 1.1% of male and 1.4% of female respondents reported they had attempted suicide
Remember, veterinarians aren't the only ones who can suffer from burnout, compassion fatigue and other mental health issues. Support staff also face challenges that, left unaddressed, can affect their well-being. Keep an open dialogue about mental health and how difficult situations at work impact members of your team.
According to the Mayo Clinic, burnout is a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.
You could be experiencing burnout if you:
- have become cynical or critical at work
- dread going to work and have trouble getting started once you arrive
- have become impatient or irritable with co-workers and clients
- lack the energy to be consistently productive
- lack satisfaction in your achievements
- feel disillusioned about your job
- are using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
- have experienced sleep or appetite changes
- are trouble by unexplained headaches, backaches or other physical pains
People in helping professions are at greater risk of job burnout, according to the Mayo Clinic. Other risk factors include:
- identifying so strongly with your work that you lack balance between work life and personal life
- trying to be everything to everyone
- feeling like you have no control over your work
- working in a monotonous environment
Tips for dealing with burnout
Strategies to deal with burnout (courtesy of the Mayo Clinic):
- identify and deal with stressors that contribute to burnout
- evaluate options, including flexible work schedules, mentoring, continuing education and more
- rediscover the enjoyable aspects of your work or make a conscious effort to recognize co-workers for valuable contributions
- seek support from co-workers, friends, loved ones or a health professional
- assess your interests, skills, and passions, and be honest about whether you should consider a career change
- get some exercise to help you deal with stress
According to Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community, by Charles R. Figley, PhD, and Robert G. Roop, PhD, “compassion fatigue is exhaustion due to compassion stress, the demands of being empathic and helpful to those who are suffering.”
You could be experiencing compassion fatigue if you:
- wake up often after a full night sleep and still feel exhausted
- have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep
- are having frequent nightmares
- have seen major changes in appetite
- are making unhealthy choices in food as a means of comfort more often than you used to
- feel that your work is endless and thankless
- have seen a decline in job performance
- take more sick days than when you first started in the profession
- have more problems arising in person relationships and struggle more with professional relationships
- often feel guilty
- feel overwhelmed
- are angrier or more easily irritated than normal
- often struggle with gut-wrenching grief
- feel numb or empty
- often feel unsafe
- are impatient more often than usual
- no longer have time for activities you once enjoyed
- find yourself cancelling on friends and withdrawing from social contact
- forget to take time for yourself
- find yourself turning to substances to help you cope or numb your feelings
If you think you're suffering from burnout or compassion fatigue, you've already taken the first step to dealing with it by acknowledging the problem. It’s important to deal with these issues quickly, since they can worsen over time if not addressed and impact all aspects of your life.
Tips for dealing with compassion fatigue
You can also take steps to lessen your stress and increase your resilience. The book When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession, by Kathleen Ayl, PsyD, has tips for dealing with compassion fatigue, worksheets and directions for discussing compassion fatigue in your clinic.
Some coping strategies include:
Get enough rest and play – Stop taking work home with you and allow yourself time to relax without distractions like email and texting. Ayl also suggest relearning how to play, whether that’s getting out a board game, playing catch or just allowing yourself to be silly. Some strategies for relaxing include surrounding yourself with nurturing people, taking a bath, reading uplifting literature or just a fun novel, visualizing yourself feeling peaceful, calm and fulfilled, deep breathing and writing in a journal.
Self-reflection – It’s important to pay attention to your feelings as you manage the symptoms of compassion fatigue. “By learning to quiet the mind and witness one’s own thought process, one can gain the insight necessary to allow change to take place in one’s life,” Ayl writes. When Helping Hurts contains some guiding questions to help you with your self-reflection.
Take a vacation – Getting away from it all, whether by travelling or simply taking some time off, can help you relax more fully. Booking a vacation also gives you something to look forward to.
Break down tasks – It can be helpful to break down your day or each duty into smaller tasks or time increments. This can help if you are feeling overwhelmed. Write down how even menial tasks can be broken into smaller pieces, then each time you complete a mini-task, check it off your list.
Be easy on yourself – “It’s imperative that you learn to be compassionate with yourself, especially when you feel that you have failed,” Ayl writes. “Failing or being imperfect is human and a part of everyone’s life.”
Examine your ability to cope – Find positive ways to relax and de-stress, whether it’s exercise, meditation or something else you enjoy. Beware of destructive coping mechanisms, such as substance abuse, throwing yourself into your work or overeating.
Set limits – It’s important to set boundaries between your work and home life so that you're able to get relief from the stress of your day. Recognize that you're part of a team and can’t do everything alone.
The difference between burnout and compassion fatigue
Burnout is a previously meaningful relationship with a job or project that has now become stressful and damaging, while compassion fatigue relates more specifically to stress around patient and client distress.
If you’re suffering from burnout and other strategies haven’t been effective, a change of job may necessary. If your source of stress is caused by animal and human distress, and you haven’t been able to find an appropriate coping mechanism, then it may be time to investigate a non-clinical position or change in career. See Vetlife for more information.
Depression can cause a range of physical, emotional, cognitive and behavioural symptoms, including:
- Persistent sadness throughout the day, nearly every day
- Loss of interest in or enjoyment of favourite activities
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Excessive or inappropriate guilt
- Thoughts of death or suicide
- Trouble making decisions
- Trouble concentrating
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Aches and pains, such as headaches, stomach pains, joint pains and more
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Change in weight or appetite
- Feelings or restlessness or being slowed down
If you think you might be suffering from depression, seek help from your doctor. See Depression Hurts for a more extensive symptom checklist and a guide of what to discuss with your doctor.
Canadian Mental Health Association
Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
Veterinary Mental Health and Wellness documents compiled by CVMA
Humane Society of the United States: Stress and Compassion Fatigue
Mental Health Works (a project of the Canadian Mental Health Association, Ontario)
Mental Health Commission of Canada
Vetlife - Looking After the Veterinary Profession (UK)
Working Through It
Helpful Printed Publications
Compassion Fatigue in the Animal-Care Community, by Charles R. Figley, PhD, and Robert G. Roop, PhD
When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession, by Kathleen Ayl, PsyD
Compassion Fatigue, by Debbie L. Stoewen, in Tait J, Ausman B, eds. The First Bite: A Comprehensive Guide to Establishing and Growing Your Career in Veterinary Medicine. Guelph: Pandora Press, 2006.
Taking stock and making strides toward wellness in the veterinary workplace, JAVMA, Vol 247, No. 7, October 1, 2015.