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Depression and the importance of hope
  1. Adele Waters

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‘I know exactly the moment it all became too much,’ a vet confided last week. ‘I was working as a horse vet and out on visits when I got a call from the practice receptionist asking me to see a horse. ‘They want you to go right now,’ she said. My brain just said ‘I can’t.’

This episode followed weeks of stress. After time off sick and a programme of psychotherapy and a re-evaluation of his life, today he’s not only out the other side but able to share his story with others.

Talking at an RCVS Mind Matters stream at last week’s BSAVA congress, he was joined by another vet and a doctor who also shared their accounts of how they have coped with depression and even near suicide. They were all speaking with the aim of helping vet professionals recognise and manage signs of mental distress.

There were common patterns in their stories – a build up of stress, ignoring warning signs, a sudden inability to cope.

The audience listened attentively as each one in turn talked about the various mental and physical symptoms they had suffered: difficulty concentrating, early morning waking, forgetfulness, difficulty making decisions – ‘I found myself not being able to choose a mug to have a cup of tea in,’ one admitted.

I have been enriched by my experience of mental disease

They had experienced energy loss, indigestion, constipation, loss of libido, weight loss. There were similar emotional responses too: ‘I felt guilty’, ‘I felt a failure, like I was letting people down’.

But the speakers also brought tales of learning and hope. Each one has found themselves richer for their journeys of illness, self-discovery and return to wellness.

‘I am a deeper character. I’m more gentle. I’m more aware. I’m more insightful. I feel like I’m a better person,’ said one.

We know that there are disproportionately high levels of anxiety and depression among veterinary professionals. Heartbreakingly, a much higher rate of suicide too. Research in 2005 suggested the rate of deaths by suicide in vets was nearly four times the national average, and double that of doctors or dentists.

Work stress is an important contributor. Days can often be long, workloads unpredictable, and complex ethical decisions are in abundance. And yet, despite greater awareness of the need to address the problem, we know that stress levels among UK vet professionals are too high and getting worse.

Luckily growing awareness of the problem has brought greater recognition for the need for a greater level of support. Vetlife offers a 24/7 helpline and professional mental health support (telephone 0303 040 2551).

The RCVS Mind Matters initiative offers mental health awareness training and resources to support the profession to breakdown the stigma associated with mental ill health.

And today Vet Record is also extending its support to vets with the launch of a new section.

‘Balance’ is our way of offering readers a break from their busy working lives; of helping you better manage your own wellbeing so you can better manage your clients and patients.

Brought to you with the support of VDS, it will be somewhat different to the content in the rest of the publication. What remains unchanged, however, is our dedication to being a support to the veterinary profession – a source of expert advice, understanding and guidance to help you to be the very best vet you can be.

We hope you will find the section interesting and useful, and we welcome your feedback on it. We also want to hear your ideas on what we could cover in the future. Get in touch at vet.editorial{at}bmj.com or via Twitter at @Vet_Record using the hashtag #VetRecordBalance.

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