Why Depression Is Such A Problem In Veterinary Medicine
24.5% of male and 36.7% of female vets have at least experienced one bout of depression since school- a trend that has been mirrored in the UK, New Zealand, and Australia. This data doesn’t even take into account the prevalence amongst veterinary support staff, who similarly to vets, experience a number of unique day-to-day challenges¹.
So what’s going on? In this article, we explore why depression is so prevalent in veterinary medicine, and what you can do to look after your mental wellbeing.
Why is Depression a Problem Within the Veterinary Community?
Depression is a condition that can be caused by a combination of biological, social, and psychological factors.
As caregivers, vets frequently experience stressful situations, which, over time, can lead to depressive disorders.
Veterinary professionals have to deal with a number of challenges, including:
Long work hours– Qualified vets can expect to work 57-hour weeks, which can take a significant toll on their mental and physical health.
Exposure to death and suffering- Few people become a vet without an underlying love of animals. So having to deal with the inevitable, but heartbreaking, aspects of veterinary medicine can take a huge emotional toll. Though often a welcome release, euthanasia, for example, can still be traumatic and vets are unique among professionals in having to perform this act.
Poor work cultures- Although every practice is different, veterinary medicine has had a long-standing issue with retention due to toxic cultures. Blame culture, generational disconnect/unreasonable expectations (on both sides), and an unhealthy focus on animal welfare at the expense of team welfare are all common issues that contribute.
High emotional demands- Good vets need to be compassionate. But how much compassion is too much? Emotional fatigue is common among veterinary professionals and can be quite damaging².
How Personality Can Play a Role Too
There are various theories as to why depression is so prolific within the veterinary community.
The most commonly cited theory alludes to the ‘type’ of people who choose this vocation.
According to research, traits commonly associated with depression (perfectionism and neuroticism) are rife within the community.
While these traits can help veterinary students get into school and succeed academically, in practice, they can cause significant distress.
Medicine is a messy imperfect business. The comparatively uncertain, and changing landscape of life in practice is vastly different from life in academia.
While exciting, the transition can also be problematic for perfectionists. Off the rails of academia, young vets assume full responsibility for cases, including the inevitable failures that occur. Such circumstances can hit hard, and without the proper coping mechanisms in place, they can result in feelings of hopelessness and depression³.
A Culture of Burnout and Stress
The profession’s wider culture of burnout and stress certainly doesn’t help either.
According to research, around three-quarters of veterinary professionals are very or quite worried about stress and burnout⁴. 90% of vets consider their jobs ‘stressful’, and 68% of vets feel that they work too much⁵.
Only 34% of vets that graduated five or more years ago believe that their education has properly prepared them for practice life⁶. This lack of support may contribute to feelings of hopelessness characteristic of depressive disorders⁷.
How to Cope with Depression
If you’re struggling with depression, there are a number of things you can do.
1. Connect with Others
Depression can be incredibly isolating. But withdrawing from everyday life can exacerbate feelings of hopelessness, causing a downward spiral.
Staying connected with your friends, family, and colleagues can help keep you grounded. This can be as simple as texting a friend or calling someone. Maybe get someone you love to check in on you during rough periods. No matter how alone you feel, there are always people who care, so don’t hesitate to ask for help when you need it.
Get involved with a local network like a sports club or community group. Not only does this provide connection opportunities, it also expands life beyond the veterinary bubble which can become all-consuming.
2. Be Active
Exercise isn’t just good for your physical health. Having a moderate exercise regime can boost feel-good hormones and distract you from negative thoughts.
If you’re new to exercise, start gently by taking a 20-minute walk a day.
3. Face Your Fears
When you feel down, don’t avoid things that make you uncomfortable. This may seem counterintuitive, but avoiding situations that make you fearful will only exacerbate that anxiety.
Gently expose yourself to situations you dislike to acclimatize. Over time, this should ease negative feelings associated with certain situations.
This is also something that can be done with a professional counselor.
4. Eat Well
Neglecting your physical health (surprise, surprise) does not benefit your mental health.
When people are depressed they can either overeat (to self-soothe) or undereat (if their appetite is suppressed). This can make them feel bad in the long run.
Instead of turning to substances (like alcohol) for short-term relief, try to eat a nutritionally dense diet. Although alcohol or other addictive substances can initially make you feel better, when they leave your system you’ll feel worse.
5. Have a Routine
When people feel down their routine can get a little all over the place. Whether you’re oversleeping or not sleeping enough, ensuring you stick to a regular routine can make it easier to bounce back after a low period. Try planning out small tasks throughout the day, which will keep you occupied (but not overwhelmed)⁸.
6. Consider Therapy or Medication
Therapy, medication (or both) can really help people struggling with depression. A good first step is to see your GP/primary care physician to arrange a referral or seek a recommendation to a service that can help.
7. Self-Care (But Not in The Way You Think)
There’s a lot of commercial hype around the concept of self-care. But fundamentally, it isn’t all about facemasks and bubble baths (but of course, if this makes you happy you do you!).
When people have depression, they often stop looking after themselves. This can cause more hopelessness, stress, or self-loathing. Proper self-care can be as simple as getting out of bed, brushing your teeth, or taking a shower. Integrating these little acts of self-love can really help.
8. Challenge Negative Thinking
People with depression commonly experience ‘cognitive distortions’, which are thoughts and feelings that are irrational or unrealistic. Sometimes, it can be useful to challenge such thoughts. If you find yourself doing this, ask yourself:
Is there another explanation for this?
What evidence is there that this thought is truthful?
If my loved one thought this, what would I say to them?
If it helps, you can write your answers down in something like a mood diary. This can help challenge problematic thought patterns.
The Bottom Line
Being a veterinary professional can be an immensely rewarding career. But it is undeniable that there are both systemic and cultural problems exacerbating the high rates of depression and suicide among clinicians.
There are always things you can do to improve your own well-being (and others). If you’re struggling with your mental health, be kind to yourself and remember that it’s not just a feeling – it’s a disorder and your feelings are valid.
If you found this article helpful, why not check out our recent blog on 'The Five Stages Of Burnout: Spot The Signs'. Read it here.
Mental Health Helplines:
1- ‘When Caring Hurts: Dealing with Depression in Veterinary Medicine.’ https://todaysveterinarynurse.com/articles/dealing-with-depression-in-veterinary-medicine/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
2- ‘A challenging career – Vetlife.’ https://www.vetlife.org.uk/mental-health/depression/a-challenging-career/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
3- ‘Vets more likely to die by suicide – University of Southampton.’ 26 Mar. 2011, https://www.southampton.ac.uk/song/news/2010/03/26_vets_more_likely_to_die_by_suicide.page. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
4- ‘Report of the Voice snapshot survey on Covid-19: 6 months on from ….’ 7 Oct. 2020, https://www.bva.co.uk/media/3781/voice-covid-survey-2020-results.pdf. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
5- ‘The Truth about Wellbeing within the Veterinary Profession.’ 5 Oct. 2020, https://vethelpdirect.com/vetblog/2020/10/05/the-truth-about-wellbeing-within-the-veterinary-profession/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
6- ‘Study reveals that younger veterinary professionals have higher ….’ 6 Dec. 2020, https://www.dvm360.com/view/study-reveals-that-younger-veterinary-professionals-have-higher-burnout-rates. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
7- ‘Doubt, depression, anxiety – just some of the problems plaguing the ….’ 18 May. 2018, https://theconversation.com/doubt-depression-anxiety-just-some-of-the-problems-plaguing-the-veterinary-profession-96162. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.
8- ‘How to cope with depression – NHS.’ https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/tips-and-support/cope-with-depression/. Accessed 11 Oct. 2021.