Mental health first aid for vets

The Australian Veterinary Association is rolling out an emergency kit of tools for the veterinary industry in an effort to boost workplace wellness, reports Meg Crawford

The statistics on anxiety and depression in the veterinary industry are sobering. A 2009 study entitled ‘Psychological wellbeing of Australian veterinarians’, for example, found that of the 2000-plus respondents, over one third were suffering from poor psychological health.

Suicide rates are even more alarming, with Victorian and Western Australian studies determining that the incidence of suicide among vets is three to four times that of the balance of the population.

With this in mind, Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Australia, the body responsible for training more than half a million Aussies to respond to mental-health issues, has designed a program specifically addressing the high levels of distress, anxiety and depression in the veterinary industry.

The MFHA program equips trainees to recognise the symptoms of mental health problems, while providing them with an understanding of the risk factors and possible causes involved, and the medical, psychological and alternative treatment options available. Importantly, the MHFA program instils in participants the necessary and sensitive skills required to provide initial help and support to someone suffering from poor mental health and equips them to develop a plan of action in crisis situations (such as where someone is exhibiting suicidal ideation or behaviour, is psychotic or having a panic attack, or has overdosed).

Rosie Overfield, one of MHFA’s accredited instructors and part of the team responsible for rolling out the MHFA program to vets nationally, has inside knowledge of the pressure and stressors unique to the veterinary industry after starting her career as a vet nurse in the 1990s. “There are quite a number of things that makes the veterinary environment really unique,” she explains. “First, really practical things that we see in workplace, health and safety legislation around psycho-social hazards are things that many vets would say are commonplace in their job, like fatigue, working in isolation, customer aggression, long hours and work-related mental stress. We also have this ‘caring-killing’ paradox for veterinarians, as well as high responsibility and low control, another paradox that many graduates, in particular, struggle with.”

The MHFA program equips veterinary professionals to provide initial support to colleagues suffering mental health issues.

Couple all of this with the fact that clients often undervalue the services provided by veterinarians and associated professionals, and the issues confronting vets are looking pretty grim. Fortunately, programs like that of the MHFA are providing industry participants with tools to combat these issues constructively.

Now a trained counsellor with a niche area of expertise in compassion fatigue, Overfield works as a human resources and workplace wellness consultant for Crampton Consulting. Overfield estimates that over the last seven years, about 70 per cent of her time has been spent working with veterinarians, vet nurses, practice managers and business owners, particularly around the issues of resilience, managing stress and knowing how and when to seek help for someone who is struggling with their mental health. It was a natural fit then for Overfield to expand her practice by becoming one of the MHFA program’s accredited instructors in 2016, with a specific focus on the veterinary industry.

The skills around being a good listener and communicating non-judgementally are just so important. It’s so easy to overlay someone else’s experiences with our own.”—Rosie Overfield, MHFA instructor

Collectively, the Australian Veterinary Association, Provet, Greencross and Animal Referral Hospitals view the MHFA program as critical, and continue to champion the program’s roll-out nationally.

“They’re working to invest in making sure that every vet, every nurse, every receptionist and every practice manager gets an opportunity to have this training and take it back to their teams, immediately making a difference to everyone they’re working with,” Overfield says.

The MHFA program comprises 12 hours of training over two days. Overfield defines mental health first aid as the help given to someone who is developing or experiencing a worsening of a mental health problem or who is in a mental health crisis. “It’s not about diagnosing people or fixing people,” she says. “It’s about providing support and help until the appropriate professional treatment is received.”

In terms of content, while the program educates participants about depression, anxiety, psychosis and substance misuse, it primarily equips people to approach, assess and assist someone who is in strife from a mental-health perspective. “It shows people how to open up a conversation, provide a safe place to talk and resource themselves adequately to help the other person and partner with them to seek the proper support that they need,” says Overfield. Importantly, the program also covers suicide—specifically, the guidelines around talking to someone who might have suicidal thoughts and behaviours, as well as what to do after traumatic events.

How does the MHFA program help participants broach these sensitive issues? “That’s actually the question that a lot of people ask themselves when deciding whether they want to come to the course,” says Overfield. “It’s not in our nature as human beings to want to be part of something that seems uncertain or has a risk that we might offend someone or hurt their feelings.” Thankfully, the MFHA program tackles this front on.

“We’ve got a really strong guideline around what to do in this regard,” says Overfield. “The first action is to find the right time and place to approach someone, which can be hard in a veterinary practice. Then, it’s about recognising that the types of questions you ask are important in terms of helping that person to feel safe.

“A question like, ‘are you alright?’ is not going to be the right way to start the conversation, but perhaps something like, ‘I’ve noticed that you’ve not been yourself lately, what’s been happening for you?’ is a much gentler, more open conversation starter. The skills around being a good listener and communicating non-judgementally are just so important. It’s so easy to overlay someone else’s experiences with our own, but we know it’s not helpful to people with a mental health concern to say something like, ‘you’ll be right, it’ll get better’. Those sorts of responses are really just a reflection of our own discomfort with the topic.”

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