Starting a global dialogue about mental health in veterinary medicine

May 21, 2020
Amanda Carrozza

Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.

dvm360, dvm360 June 2020, Volume 51, Issue 6

Following its worldwide survey of mental health and wellbeing in the veterinary profession, WSAVA vows to take steps to advance the health and welfare of veterinary teams around the world.

Mental health among veterinary professionals is receiving significant attention from the largest global veterinary association, including creation of a Professional Wellness Group tasked with maintaining and advancing the health and wellbeing of veterinary professionals around the world.

Results from the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s (WSAVA) recent online survey illustrate that stress and diminished wellbeing are a significant problem in the veterinary profession worldwide.

“Veterinarians care for our animal companions, but the question is, who is caring for them?” asks Nienke Endenburg, PhD, a psychologist at the University of Utrecht’s veterinary school in the Netherlands and cochair of WSAVA’s Professional Wellness Group Committee. “As a global community, we wanted to gain a clear understanding of the challenges faced by our members around the world and to find out both what they have in common and where their experience differs.”

What the survey revealed

Launched at the 2019 WSAVA World Congress in Toronto, the online survey—which was translated into six languages—was completed by 4,258 veterinary professionals. The respondents were predominantly women (81.7%) with a median age of 35. Although the survey was open to all veterinary professionals, veterinarians comprised 73.1% of the respondents, followed by staff (21.3%) and students (2.9%).

Some of the significant findings include:

  • Mental wellbeing is a particular issue in Asia, Africa, Europe and North America.
  • Oceania, a collection of islands in the Asia-Pacific region, is the highest-performing area in terms of wellbeing.
  • Veterinary technicians/nurses experience a significantly higher volume of mental health issues.
  • Older veterinary professionals are more satisfied with their careers.
  • The wellbeing of younger and female members of the profession is most at risk.
  • Veterinarians are significantly more satisfied with their careers than are veterinary nurses/technicians.

The hurdles

Although the survey uncovered undeniable similarities in how veterinary professionals feel their mental wellbeing is being compromised by their careers, there were notable differences in how particular regions respond to the severity of the issue and even the root causes.

“Nurses do not get paid an amount that reflects their worth,” said a 28-year-old female veterinary nursing student from the United Kingdom. “In both human and animal medical settings, nurses are stretched thin across the field and are not recognized for their work. I feel this contributes a lot to the feelings of low self-worth within the nursing role.”

In Asia and Africa, there remains a reluctance to talk about mental health issues. “Mental illness has a stigma so people don't admit it or seek treatment,” said another respondent, a 39-year-old female veterinarian from Malaysia.

Dr. Endenburg agrees that people in certain areas of the world remain hesitant to speak about their struggles with mental health. “A lot of people believe that poor professional wellness, suicide and burnout are problems only in the Western world and that it is not an issue in Africa or Asia,” she told dvm360 in an exclusive interview.

However, the high level of response to the survey confirms that wellness is very important to all veterinary professionals. “It doesn’t matter where you are on the globe,” Dr. Endenburg adds.

Next steps

In the coming months, WSAVA’s Professional Wellness Group will establish a centralized online location for original and repurposed materials that veterinary professionals can utilize as guidelines to address burnout and initiate conversations about wellbeing within their hospitals.

Dr. Endenburg says that since reading through the personal comments some respondents chose to include and by analyzing the quantitative data, she recognizes the need to make mental health part of the education process. “Students learn how to take care of patients, but they need to learn how to take care of themselves," she says. "I want to see it become standard in the curriculum that students are taught how to take care of their health and welfare.”

By initiating the conversation before graduation, Dr. Endenburg also hopes the experience will become normalized. “If we can talk about [mental health] then we can also solve the problem. Not only is it better for you to talk about it, but it is better for animal welfare and therefore the entire veterinary team.”

She also believes that a vital aspect of ensuring positive wellbeing for all veterinary professionals is determining which established programs currently have the most impact. “There are a lot of great toolkits available, like those from AVMA or the Mind Matters Initiative in the United Kingdom,” she says. “I would like to see which of these programs are proving to be the most beneficial.” Could methods being integrated into practices in America help veterinary professionals in Europe or other areas of the world?

“The results of our research provide a unique global view of this important issue and we look forward to discussing these with our expert colleagues and exploring practical solutions that respect the regional, economic and cultural differences of our membership,” Dr. Endenburg says. “It will be an important first step toward bringing about positive change and enhancing the wellbeing of veterinarians globally.”

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