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A stitch in time saves lives

07 May 2019, at 9:30am

Incorporating suturing, crocheting and suicide awareness, the sentiment behind this proverb has real significance in today’s veterinary profession

Becoming a vet was a decision I came to late. I’d almost completed the final year of my zoology degree when I realised my strengths and interests really lay in the physiology of the animals I was studying, not their theoretical ecology. But during my third year at vet school, my mental health began to really suffer; course finances were a constant drain, my relationship unexpectedly ended, I then suffered a miscarriage and soon enough, I realised I’d missed more days of university than I had turned up to.

In November last year, I decided to take some time out to look after myself. My internal overachiever initially saw it as a failure, but I began to look at the year as an opportunity to not just seek psychological therapy and work on my physical health; I also knew I wanted to be an advocate for mental health within the profession.

During my darkest weeks I’d picked up crochet to distract myself from feeling like there was nothing to live for. I made little animals for my family for Christmas and I realised this was a skill – completely separate to anything veterinary – that I could do to bring happiness to others. Since then, I have crocheted animals for people all over the world, which I create in exchange for a donation to a mental health charity. The methodical process of stitching round by round really helped give me a focus in my time of need and helped me untangle the feelings of hopelessness.

I know I’m not the only one that has struggled: we have seriously disillusioned undergraduates not even finishing vet school because the compulsory EMS is so dangerously varied in quality, and none of it is paid. We’re already telling our future vets that their time is not valuable, and they should expect to work extremely hard for free (incidentally, our business undergrad peers happily earn a full year’s wage for the same amount of work in their “year in industry”), so is it any surprise our retention rate of vets is dropping?

I am so glad that recently there has been a big surge within the profession on mental health and happiness, but there is a part of me that feels we’re just not going far enough, soon enough. The charity VetLife has seen a huge increase in the number of vets, nurses and students contacting them in the last few years. I don’t think this is as much of a cause for celebration as it may sound when the suicide rates of vets are still four times the average, globally. Are we seeing an increase in vets seeking mental health support just because we’re now all more comfortable talking about the subject, or are we seeing an increase because we’re still not addressing the root of the problem?

In November, the BVA proudly presented its workforce study on why so many vets are so unhappy, but the conclusion was a frustratingly small 15cm box on the final page citing that vets are struggling due to being overworked, underpaid and unsupported – what a surprise!

I can’t help feeling we’ve been barking up the wrong tree too long – we’ve had more than enough time now to really start implementing these projects in a practical way and put the bite behind that bark, so to speak.

We shouldn’t still be leaving the onus entirely on the individual, or practice, to overcome these sometimes cripplingly difficult issues. Projects like Vet Futures, highlighting alternative careers within veterinary medicine, and the Graduate Outcomes survey this year, are the kind of steps we need so much more of when it comes to setting our future vets up for success and shaping the profession they’re dedicating their lives to.

Finding reasons for living other than our work, as I’ve personally realised, is just as vital. Nurturing hobbies and interests that keep us going and recharge us so that we can be the best version of ourselves when it comes to looking after our patients is so important. The mental health conversation is making this easier, but wouldn’t it be fabulous if we could start a campaign to show that a “vet” (read: “parent, underwater basket weaver and comic book lover”) has a life outside their work, and that is what gives them the drive and balance to be the best practitioner they can? Vet students are high-achieving and focused people, but we need more role models to show it’s okay, indeed encouraged, to have a genuinely balanced life.

This is an exasperatingly large subject, and there is no single solution. I believe the crisis really needs to be tackled from all stakeholder positions: students, individual professionals, clients and corporations, to have any long-term shift.

I would start at the beginning of the chain, with student expectations and education, and at the end of the chain with clients’ and our own individual perceptions, to ensure we are serving the profession as best we can. Prevention is always better than cure where possible and I really believe putting in the groundwork now will pay dividends for the vets of the future and keep them hooked for life.

Nessie Riley, BSc (Hons), is a clinical vet student who graduated with a zoology degree from the University of Nottingham. She is taking a year out from her Graduate Accelerated BVetMed at the Royal Veterinary College. Nessie works part time as a veterinary receptionist and nursing assistant and crochets animals for mental health

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