In all countries where research has been conducted, veterinarians show greater rates of psychological distress including depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
Vets in the UK are 3 to 4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. Poor mental health is often attributed to work intensity, duration of working hours and the effect this has on personal lives.
- To be a good vet, we must be emotionally involved with our patients and our clients, but this empathy can also make us vulnerable to being profoundly affected by our work, says Helen Wilkie.
She's a veterinarian based in Scotland and has first-hand experience with this. Shortly after graduating, Helen was burnt out and struggling to cope with the pressures of work.
- I was completely overwhelmed by the job I wanted to love. I had forgotten who I was outside of work. Some days the only thing that kept me going was that I could take my dog with me.
Being in the moment
Labrador Bran reminded Helen of how important it was to other people that she could help their best friend.
- I needed to find a way to love the job I had always dreamed of doing, and that started with finding myself again. I started running. It was something I used to enjoy. I took Bran and we left the roads and headed onto trails and into nature, where I have always felt at home. That time allowed me to think things through or think of nothing at all. I admired how Bran, like all dogs, was always occupied by the present moment and finding something new and interesting to sniff out. I started to notice what was around me; the buds emerging at the tips of branches after winter, the birds hopping through hedgerows, the outline of the hills where the sun rose and set. Bran was the quiet company I needed during this time whilst I was working out which direction I was heading in.
Started helping others
After seeing the benefits of being active with her dog, Helen started Vet Outdoors to help others.
- I wanted to contribute to improving mental health in the veterinary community. Outdoor activity remains the most effective way I can look after my mental wellbeing, and I felt compelled to share it with others. Exercising and spending time in nature is something everyone can do for themselves, making a real difference to their wellbeing. I want to empower people to make those changes through Vet Outdoors. Originally, I set out to do this by organizing the Vet Month of Movement, a month-long team exercise challenge to fundraise for Vetlife, a charity which provides mental health support to the veterinary profession in the UK. It encourages teams from practices across the country to be more active for their mental health throughout October. It is coming into its third year and is undergoing some exciting developments.
Helen loves endurance challenges but finding the time and motivation to train for them can be difficult around her long days at work.
- Vet Outdoors helps me to be more accountable, and actually put in the training for the events and adventures I want to do. When I graduated I believed I wouldn’t have the time to train and complete anything longer than a half marathon and anyone I spoke to strengthened this belief. I am now running ultramarathons. By sharing these experiences through social media, I hope I can inspire others to follow their dreams.
Canicross gave training a new dimension
Up until Helen started canicross some months ago, she always ran with her dogs off leash.
- Canicross is giving our sessions a new dimension of teamwork. We’ve got a lot to learn but I am enjoying the process. Caorann, my other dog, has taken really quickly to canicross. She loves getting her harness on and often retrieves it and my trainers when we’re at home, as if to ask if we can go for another run. My dogs are my most enthusiastic training buddies. Without them, I wouldn’t run as consistently and I probably wouldn’t maintain the fitness needed to run ultramarathons alongside my busy working schedule. It doesn’t matter if the weather is bad, or what time of day it is, my dogs are always keen to go for a run.
Running together benefits the dog's physical and mental health too.
- Caorann is six years old. When she came to stay she was very nervous of people, wasn’t house trained and had terrible separation anxiety. She was also lame, and I discovered that her elbows are arthritic, presumably due to elbow dysplasia. Running has been beneficial in managing her condition by helping to maintain her weight and build muscle mass to support her joints. It has also helped to develop her confidence, give her mental stimulation and overcome her anxiety issues.
- Stop waiting for the weekend to do things you enjoy
Anyone, not just vets, who feel overwhelmed by an aspect of their life can make small changes which can have real impact.
- Simply ensuring you get enough sleep and time to rest, eat healthily and exercise can boost mood and self-esteem. Schedule time for yourself each day and set boundaries so that time is protected. Stop waiting for the weekend to do things you enjoy. Surround yourself in people who support you. Return the support, and always be kind. If you’re struggling, be brave and speak about it to someone. Spend time outdoors, explore the natural spaces you live close to, breathe in the fresh air, and allow your dog to show you how to truly live in the moment.