VetStrategy helps fund mental well-being research: Paving the way for the next generation of veterinarians
October 10, 2023
Dr. Andria Jones (left) and Dr. Caroline Ritter (right).
- October 10 marks World Mental Health Day, a day to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health.
- The day provides an opportunity for all partners working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental healthcare a reality for people worldwide.
- As part of our Positive Pawprint strategy, we’re supporting our people and veterinarians by providing funding for a pan-Canadian research project on the well-being of early-career veterinarians.
Championing the Cause
The study is led by Dr. Caroline Ritter, Assistant Professor of Veterinary Epidemiology at the Atlantic Veterinary College and Dr. Andria Jones, epidemiologist and Professor in the Department of Population Medicine, and former Director of Well-Being Programming for the Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) at the University of Guelph.
We sat down with Drs. Ritter and Jones to learn more about this vital research.
Can you explain this research that VetStrategy is supporting?
Dr. Ritter: Previous studies looked at how often veterinarians experience negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, burnout, and more. We are now approaching it from a different angle. Our study is, from a Canadian standpoint, focused on the factors that contribute to resilience. What does it take for early-career vets to overcome challenges and flourish in the field? We’re holding interviews, focus groups, and surveys with early-career DVMs and DVM students across the country. We’re asking them how they overcame challenges in their careers, what helped them stay in practice, what kind of tools/skills help them to manage occupational stressors, etc. We connect with the students in their final year of school and then follow them into the first few years after graduation to see how they develop over time.
In what ways are early-career veterinarians exhibiting more worrisome mental health issues than employees in other industries?
Dr. Jones: Currently we don’t have direct comparison statistics between veterinarians and other occupations. But in my research lab we found that veterinarians scored worse off than the normative populations for perceived stress, depression, anxiety, burnout, quality of life, and more. Some researchers refer to the first 5 years from graduation to practice as the make-or-break period for DVMs. Early-career DVMs have different stressors than those who have been around for longer. They are adjusting to clinical practice and entering a new phase of life. Resilience scores tend to be higher in older age groups than younger age groups. Our aim is to help early-career veterinarians develop strategies and skills that can help with that transition.
What is the difference between the stressors of new DVMs versus those who have been in the profession for a longer time?
Dr. Ritter: It starts with the technical skills. Someone who has been in practice for 20 years is a lot more confident in their technical skills. They can focus on other things like building client relationships, and in general the day-to-day routine is likely a bit less stressful for them. For early-career DVMs everything is new. They are thrown into this new world where they may not have good support in place in terms of mentorship or even a social support network outside of their work. They are faced with so many factors that might chip away at self-esteem and confidence. Remember that the ones still in practice after 20 years – they’re the ones still standing. They were the ones that overcame these challenges.
What short-term and long-term outcomes or resources are you expecting to emerge as a result of the research?
Dr. Ritter: Our idea is to take all our findings and create evidence-based training or workshops that can be available to all veterinary schools. It can also be useful for early-career DVMs across different hospitals.
Dr. Jones: Our data have indicated that a training workshop might be useful even for other members of the veterinary team. Anybody from a kennel assistant to RVTs and client service representatives. The focus of this project is early-career vets, but we can modify it and extend to other members of the veterinary team. Some would argue and the literature would support that vet techs might actually have it a little harder because they lack the autonomy or financial security that most veterinarians have.
While we await the results of the study, are there any tools or tips you can share on balancing positive mental health and well-being in the veterinary clinic environment?
Dr. Jones: On a short-term basis, setting boundaries and learning how to regulate/express your emotions in healthy ways certainly helps. I realize that it is easier said than done. It’s useful to spend time reflecting on what called you to the profession in the first place, and how you and your team can better connect with that each day. Some people I’ve worked with find gratitude boards to be helpful – collecting kind notes from their clients. The angry loud client might occupy the most space in your brain but remember that they are actually the minority. In the long-term, there are systemic factors about the profession that also need to change – workload and hours for example.
Dr. Ritter: It is also helpful to establish a sense of self that is not 100% tied to being a veterinarian. When that sense of identity-related to being a vet is attacked in any way, then everything comes crumbling down, and your whole sense of self is at risk. Whereas if you have other pillars – for example, you see yourself as also being a good friend or a good spouse – there’s so much more to hold you up in that moment.
If you could go back in time, what would you have told your younger self when you first started the journey of becoming a veterinarian?
Dr. Jones: I graduated in the year 2000 and we didn’t have any formal well-being or communications training. That would have made a world of difference. I would tell myself not to take everything personally and to have more self-compassion. To reframe thoughts that aren’t helpful and don’t serve me well. I had good mentors so I can’t say I didn’t have that, but I think I also internalized a lot of my struggle. So more openly connecting with mentors would be another piece of advice.
Dr. Ritter: I graduated in 2012 in Germany, and I also didn’t have any communications training. I was so caught up in the day-to-day struggles and keeping my head above water that I never took a step back and reflected. I would ask myself ‘What is this doing to me?’ or “Is this what I want?’ That way I could be confident enough to take the necessary steps to change my surroundings if needed.