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Time for the tide to turn on titles and mental well-being

by
01 February 2015, at 12:00am

PERISCOPE continues the series of reflections on issues of current concern

THERE have been times in my life when I have felt a little bit peeved about not being able to call myself “Doctor”.

The first of these was many years ago when I was working in the USA (almost certainly illegally as it happens), not as a vet but as a California State Department of Agriculture employee.

I was explaining to my colleagues that I had graduated in the UK as a veterinary surgeon some 18 months previously and that now, after having worked in practice for a year, I had taken a year out to travel the Americas.

“So you’re a Doctor,” one of them said. It took me a long time to try to explain why I wasn’t a “Doctor” and I remain convinced to this day that in spite of my best efforts they never really believed I could be a real vet without the word “Doctor” in front of my name.

The second incident that really peed me off back then (though now I would shrug it off with a better grace born of life’s experiences) was working with a colleague who was known as Doctor. The story was that he had been rejected by all the UK vet schools and so had paid to go to a Canadian University to get his veterinary degree.

Now returned and working in the UK, he was known as Dr …, and there was absolutely no doubt that the clients thought him better qualified than the rest of us as a result. Something which he smugly enjoyed encouraging!

So when I see that the RCVS is now consulting on whether the use should be permitted of the courtesy title “Doctor” for all those vets registered as MRCVS, I can only think to myself, “Well about bloody time!”

This issue is particularly relevant today as we now live in a world where presentation is everything and substance takes a very firm back seat.

My experience in California all those years ago beautifully demonstrated that no matter how hard I tried to persuade my colleagues that I had done a fiveyear university degree in veterinary science, the lack of that title meant it was second rate as far as they were concerned.

So when potential clients are browsing the web to select a vet to take care of their most treasured possession, those who are currently lucky enough to be able to call themselves “Doctor” (which is just about everybody who graduated outside of the UK) are at a distinct advantage.

Clients are not going to bother to read the small print concerning the finer points of degrees that automatically confer the title Doctor or the “courtesy” use of the title that is practised by our Australian and New Zealand colleagues.

Opinions sought

The RCVS is currently consulting on this issue and is asking for our opinions by 15th February. I urge you all to let them know your views and if I can persuade you to “vote” in favour of letting us all use the title “Doctor”, then I would be extremely satisfied.

Another issue that has recently come to prominence is that of the mental well-being of members of the veterinary profession. I am not generally noted for applauding the actions of the RCVS in this column but the launch of its Mind Matters Initiative in December last year really does deserve a genuine pat on the back.

We are all aware of the pressures inherent in being a veterinary surgeon, particularly working in clinical practice, and of the appalling rates of suicide amongst our members.

Whilst the statistics themselves are bad enough, one must consider that each of those bland numbers represents a personal tragedy for the individual concerned and for his or her family, friends and colleagues.

We have long wrung our hands saying that something must be done and at long last this looks like it could be the start of it.

This initiative has been followed up by a guest blog on the RCVS Vet Futures page by Rosie Allister, who chairs the Vet Helpline and is a director of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund. It is well worth reading both these pieces because it then becomes clear that simply launching an initiative or having a Vet Helpline is not enough.

Research has shown that many of those vets who have attempted suicide or contemplated suicide have never spoken to anyone about their problems.

What really needs to happen if we are to make an impact on this is that we all need to begin to change our views on the subject of mental health. We all need to be prepared to share our own fears and worries with trusted persons and we all need to be prepared to listen to and support colleagues who might try to share their worries with us. The stiff upper lip approach is clearly outdated and needs to be consigned to the dustbin.

I am certain that there are still people out there who dismiss mental ill health as something that happens to the weak-willed just as they dismiss homelessness and drug abuse as something that happens to the lazy and hopeless.

If life has taught me anything it is that one never knows what is just around the corner or how one will react to something life-changing if it does occur. I think it is always very pertinent to remember the phrase, “There but for the grace of God...” not just in our professional lives but in our personal ones too.

Whilst you can make your own luck to a certain extent, there is much that relies on nothing more than chance and circumstance.

So with the New Year under way let’s see what we as individuals can do to help tackle the issue of mental wellbeing, both our own and that of our colleagues and nearest and dearest.

Let’s try to be more open about our own feelings and more understanding to the feelings, fears and worries of those around us so that we can at last start to turn back the tide on what is the misery of suicide.

That won’t happen just through the written word on sites such as the RCVS or in articles like this. What it genuinely requires is a sea change in each and every one of us and a willingness to embrace the problem with warmth, understanding and empathy.