Publishing a self-help book and founding a charity are just some of the ways psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton is helping to improve the mental health of veterinarians. Kathy Graham reports
Veterinary careers are generally seen as a rewarding experience. But while many may think that working with pets all day is a dream job, the reality is many vets spend much of their workday performing euthanasia on sick animals, managing difficult clients and keeping the business side of things ticking over. In fact, vets deal with so much stress that it has led them to be four times more likely than the general population to commit suicide. That’s one vet choosing to end their life every 12 weeks.
Psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton says that hearing that statistic for the first time not long after starting work as a psychologist was epiphanic. She’d already decided to work with people who are suicidal—ever since a cousin killed himself in the mid 90s. Now she could marry that with her longtime love of animals.
Ten years later in 2016, Dr Hamilton had successfully completed her doctoral research into veterinarian wellbeing. “I wanted to know why is being a vet so stressful, why is there such a high burnout and suicide rate and if I could make difference and do something about it?” She’s also in the past year published a book based on this research, Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian which contains a self-help guide, and founded the charity Love your Pet Love Your Vet.
In her research, Dr Hamilton found that, as expected, euthanasia was a contributor to the high burnout and suicide but certainly not “the most stressful factor and it wasn’t the single factor”. Unrealistic expectations—both the vets’ and the clients’—compassion fatigue, and financial concerns and dealing with difficult clients all take their toll too. “The [latter] two go hand in hand and are probably the two most stressful factors that come into it,” says Dr Hamilton.
“The financial aspects, the cost of treatment, having those discussions with customers. The perception versus the reality of veterinary practice are very skewed sometimes because it does cost money to go to the vet and people think their money for that consultation has gone straight in the vet’s pocket, and they’ve got this wonderful lifestyle when the reality is they aren’t actually that highly paid.”
Wanting to create “a paradigm shift within the veterinary industry”, Dr Hamilton—in partnership with Royal Canin—launched an awareness-raising campaign culminating in the establishment of the charity Love Your Pet Love Your Vet in 2018. Their aim was threefold: to raise awareness within the community of the factors contributing to the alarming rate of burnout and suicide in veterinarians, to reduce the stigma that stops many vets from seeking professional help, and to provide support in helping vets regain their wellbeing and quality of life. “We’re raising awareness, we’re reducing the stigma, but now where do they go? LYPLYV also provides psychological and educational support to vet professionals,” says Dr Hamilton.
Apart from the website itself which boasts a wealth of resources including fact sheets, reading lists, and campaign videos, Dr Hamilton frequently liaises with the media—she’s been interviewed on The Project as well as numerous podcasts; and her team staged what is hoped will be one of many roadshows last year on the Gold Coast where the public got to ask questions of a discussion panel made up of vets. “Our main thing at the moment is getting around doing workshops,” she says. “We just did one recently on the Gold Coast. We’re trying to make them free of charge for the veterinary professionals to encourage them to attend, and they’re getting these evidence-based strategies that we know work to be able to help them. It’s a way that we can reach out and get a lot of people in one place at one time. That’s a lot quicker than me trying to work my way around 50 different practices and give them the strategies.”
These are many of the same psycho-educational strategies she delivered to veterinary participants as part of her doctoral research—and which achieved statistical significance in reducing stress, anxiety, depression and negative affect. Strategies such as building resilience, learning how to communicate assertively and respectfully without being aggressive, stopping procrastination, and practising mindfulness. “So, noticing the thoughts and feelings and choosing how to respond rather than being on autopilot. Ideally, we want our response to be aligned with our values which gives us our sense of meaning and purpose,” says Dr Hamilton, who also still finds time in her busy schedule to continue working exclusively with veterinary professionals, as well as veterinary practice managers and owners, at her Gold Coast-based private practice, Positive Psych Solutions.
“Our behaviour is the only thing that’s in our control,” she adds. “And that’s where a lot of us struggle because we like to think we can control everything, but the reality is we can’t.”
She also recommends eating well, doing regular exercise (“even if it’s just walking on the spot while waiting on results”), taking regular breaks, and getting plenty of good quality sleep.
But perhaps the most important piece of advice Dr Hamilton has for vets who are wrestling with dark thoughts: “Please reach out to an experienced and qualified health professional, a trusted friend or colleague. So, speaking up, not suffering in silence. Some people might go to their GP or ring a crisis line or read a book if they don’t want to talk to somebody. But most importantly, reaching out and talking to somebody to get the support they need.”