Mental health – to help our colleagues, do we need to change ourselves?

Rosie Allister is the Chair of Vet Helpline, a director of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund and a researcher at the University of Edinburgh studying veterinary wellbeing

The World Health Organisation predicts that, by 2030, depression will be the leading cause of the global burden of disease worldwide. It is already the leading cause of disability and accounts for 14% of the global burden of disease. At its worst, depression can lead to suicide.

It’s not only a major public health problem, but also a very personal issue for the veterinary profession. Too many vets have lost friends and colleagues to suicide. We know that vets are three to four times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, but when a colleague dies, however much we know about the statistics, it is shocking, awful and a human tragedy, which can be life-changing for those left behind.

It is a problem that as a profession we cannot ignore. Yet it can be hard to know how to respond. When someone dies by suicide it leaves us feeling very powerless, wishing there was some way we, or somebody, could have helped them find an alternative way to cope with whatever they were going through.

Rosie Allister

Rosie Allister

I think we need to talk more about how to reach out and support those who are struggling. We know from research, and from services available to vets, that it is not enough to have a service in place and hope that those in crisis will use it. One of the factors believed to increase risk of suicide in the veterinary profession is our reluctance to seek help. My own previous research with vet students has shown that they are much more likely than the general population to try to conceal mental health problems. Furthermore, a small but powerful study that interviewed 21 UK vets who had attempted suicide or experienced suicidal thoughts found that half of participants had not talked to anyone about their problems because they felt guilty or ashamed.

It can be really hard to know if a vet is struggling, yet suicide doesn’t come from nowhere, all of the research on suicide suggests it is almost always multi-factorial, and preceded by a feeling of an inability to cope over a period of time. However, it isn’t unusual for those bereaved by suicide to say ‘I wish I’d known’. Perhaps vets are particularly adept at hiding problems; at presenting a functioning façade. I wonder if this increases our vulnerability? If we hide our distress it is harder for those around us to know we need help; and when we do ask for help, it isn’t always apparent to professionals or those we reach out to just how much trouble we are in. One thing I’m often struck by when trying to support vets in crisis is that, despite all of the awful things they are going through and trying to cope with, they are often still going to work, still somehow managing to force a smile and present a functioning façade to the world.

In veterinary professional culture there is an incredibly strong work ethic, and a selflessness in terms of routinely making animal welfare a higher priority than our own. We feel that, to encourage clients to trust us and to meet their expectations, we need to appear contained, professional, and flawless. So it is hard for vets to ask for help. Our occupational culture encourages an almost unique combination of perfection, self-sacrifice, independence and omni-competence, which is totally unachievable.

Asking for help isn’t the weak option. It takes real strength. But that can be very hard to see when you are in a dark and hopeless place. Perhaps all of us have to start trying to change our culture to one that is more accepting and supportive and looks out for those in need even when they aren’t able to reach out themselves? The reason this sort of cultural change is difficult is due not only to client and societal expectations of us, but also our expectations of ourselves. Where is the stigma about asking for help coming from? Is it from others or from ourselves? Many vets I know are very accepting and supportive and non-judgemental when it comes to others’ mental health, yet when it comes to themselves, they apply unreachable standards of perfection, experience self-stigma around mental health and judge themselves harshly for a thousand failings no-one else is even aware of.

Perhaps to help our colleagues, part of the change needs to be within ourselves?

Looking to the future, we need to better understand who is most at risk, how to reach out to them, and how we can start to change our culture so that it is OK to ask for help. One of the myths about suicide is that people who are suicidal don’t talk about it, they just do it. In fact, people with suicidal intent usually do try to talk to somebody, but not always directly. Suicide is a taboo subject and people often talk around the issue or allude to it non-specifically, for example, avoiding making future plans or saying they aren’t thinking far ahead. It is important if someone says anything like this to take their distress seriously. When you are concerned someone may be suicidal, it’s really important to ask them. Another myth about suicide is that asking a depressed person about suicide will put the idea in their head. It does not – and there are good empirical studies to support this. Asking someone about it and then listening and responding can be a lifesaving intervention.

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Rosie Allister is the Chair of Vet Helpline, a director of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund [] and a researcher at the University of Edinburgh studying veterinary wellbeing. You can read her regular blog at

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of either the RCVS or the BVA.


Veterinary business leadership: An unsuitable job for a woman?

Professor Colette Henry MBA PhD FRSA FHEA, Head of Department of Business Studies,
Dundalk Institute of Technology

The evidence is clear: the veterinary sector is witnessing an unprecedented shift toward a predominately female workforce. Recent data suggest that today’s veterinary profession is characterised by young female vets mainly working full time in small animal practices, yet there are surprisingly fewer women than men at principal/director/partner level in these ‘veterinary businesses’. In fact, there are more than twice as many male as female sole principals, and more than four times as many male directors or equity partners. Surveys also suggest that female vets are disillusioned with their future career trajectory, and that they may be planning to leave the profession. This raises serious concerns, which become even more pronounced when we start to consider general trends in women’s business leadership/ownership across other sectors. Here’s what we know: women in the UK are half as likely as men to start a new business – any business; women perceive business leadership/ownership differently to their male counterparts; women tend to have less belief in their business and leadership abilities than men; business leaders and entrepreneurial role models tend to be predominately male. In short, regardless of the reasons, women are simply less prepared to come forward to take on business leadership roles.

So, what do we do? Well, I can tell you what we mustn’t do, and that’s think we can just do nothing. That strategy didn’t work for women’s business leadership generally, so there is no reason to think it might work within the veterinary sector. If we want to avoid a drastic reduction in the number of private practices and a significant increase in corporatisation, then we need to stop talking about the ‘problem’ and start implementing solutions. In this regard, I don’t believe there is a single big solution; rather, in my view, it’s going to take several small solutions being implemented across the sector.

Prof Colette Henry

Prof Colette Henry

If we look at the veterinary profession as being part of a larger veterinary ecosystem, then we can immediately see how every stakeholder has a role to play. Clearly, vet schools have a huge opportunity to develop young women’s business leadership potential simply because they have a captive audience over a prolonged period.

Veterinary business educators need to focus on ‘integrating’ rather than ‘inserting’ business leadership skills into the curriculum. They also have to be particularly mindful that women have a different perspective on business leadership when compared to men, and this needs to be accounted for in module content and pedagogy.

There is a dual challenge here: first, that of encouraging veterinary students to accept that a veterinary practice is essentially a business – an SME (small- to medium-sized enterprise) to be precise; and second, encouraging female vet students to see themselves in business leadership roles to the same extent as their male counterparts.

So, a change of mindset is required, hence the critical role of veterinary educators in preparing future veterinary leaders. But vet schools could also have a valuable role to play in providing CPD leadership programmes to graduates already in practice. This two-pronged approach could be highly effective, providing opportunities for female veterinary undergraduates to learn from young female graduates who are developing their leadership skills in the workplace. However, veterinary schools are only one component of the wider veterinary ecosystem. So I’d really like to hear from the private practices, the corporates, professional bodies and those involved in the wider veterinary business landscape too!

Colette Henry is Head of Department of Business Studies at Dundalk Institute of Technology, Ireland, and Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at UiT-The Arctic University of Norway.
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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of either the RCVS or the BVA.