By Tahlia Roy
Mara Hickey’s love of animals is as admirable and expansive as her #veterinary credentials.
But the emergency and critical care specialist — who has saved countless lives — has become one of many #veterinarians to suffer from poor #mentalhealth.
“I developed a panic disorder due to dealing with animals that were not accidentally injured,” Dr Hickey said.
“I’ve had periods of time where I’ve had to go on medication due to #depression.
“Regardless of how strong I am — this is something that is inherent in the career … and I think it’s important for us in #veterinary medicine to be open with how working in this field affects us.”
A parliamentary committee on #mentalhealthandsuicideprevention recently heard that the #suicide rate among #veterinary workers was four times greater than in the general population.
Dr Hickey recently lost a colleague to #suicide and said many in her profession were dealing with compassion fatigue, staff shortages, long working hours, inadequate pay and frequent loss of life.
She said verbal abuse from pet owners was also a frequent and unnecessary stress.
“We put our hearts and souls into this job, and to have people that we’re trying to help accuse us of not caring, or only being in it for the money, is essentially heartbreaking,” she said.
“So you can put all of those different stresses together on a person who is usually very driven and very self-motivated to do the very best they can, and that just tips us over the edge often into not wanting to continue on.”
Welcome to the “next chapter” of my life… being a voice and an advocate for #mentalhealthawarenessandsuicideprevention, especially pertaining to our younger generation of students and student-athletes.
Getting men to speak up and reach out for help and assistance is one of my passions. Us men need to not suffer in silence or drown our sorrows in alcohol, hang out at bars and strip joints, or get involved with drug use.
Having gone through a recent bout of #depression and #suicidalthoughts myself, I realize now, that I can make a huge difference in the lives of so many by sharing my story, and by sharing various resources I come across as I work in this space. #http://bit.ly/JamesMentalHealthArticle
‘Remarkable, talented guy’ lost too young
#Veterinarian Flynn Hargreaves was just 27 years old when he took his own life in 2018.
“Flynn was a remarkable, talented guy who was loved by many,” his best mate, Jack Levitt, said.
“He was someone who loved life to the fullest.”
Mr Levitt knew his friend was under pressure in his job at times, but his #suicide came as a devastating shock.
“He worked late and long hours, and the job was stressful, but he loved his work and loved putting in the extra yards to be a good vet,” he said.
The loss spurred Mr Levitt to establish the charity Flynn’s Walk, which encourages #veterinary workers to speak up about #mentalhealth.
“The walks are giving everyone the opportunity to be together and remember [those lost] and build some understanding and compassion around #mentalhealth — it’s OK to speak about it, it’s OK to speak up, it’s OK to ask for help,” he said.
#Veterinarian award ‘inappropriate and outdated’
Australian #Veterinary Association president Warwick Vale has taken the fight to improve the industry to the Fair Work Ombudsman.
“The federal award that covers working conditions for #veterinarians is totally inappropriate now and outdated,” Dr Vale said.
“We have lobbied for quite a long time for the federal government to look at the award … but we haven’t had much success.
“The starting salary is far too low; the increases in pay as they go through their levels of experience post-graduation need to change dramatically.
“Those effective pay rates that are in that award make up one of the lowest paid professions upon graduation — up to half the amount of #dentists, #lawyers and #doctors.”
Dr Vale said he had been dealing with “far too many” complaints from workers about clinics with toxic cultures that risked the #mentalhealth and lives of staff.
“We recognize that the profession has a problem with adverse work practices that are creating #mental ill-health … and that, along with fatigue and #financial insecurity, are identified as risk factors for #suicide,” he said.
“We know these workplace cultures are a significant factor in why too many young #veterinarians are dropping out of the profession.”
The association is developing programs to educate members about the standards and conditions they should be trying to achieve so the “profession can take responsibility for itself”.
“Stopping those workplace practices — the poor pay, the long working hours, the #stress and #anxiety sort of driven cultures that exist in some of these practices,” he said.
“The whole profession needs to take a look at itself and make a change.”
The federal government has acknowledged the staffing shortages, allowing overseas #veterinarians to apply for an exemption to work in Australia.
‘Positive change’ filtering through
While the #veterinary industry as a whole grapples with a shocking #suicide rate and toxic workplace cultures, some vet workers say change is already starting to take shape.
Canberra vet #nurses Chrisna Brunskill and Carrie Traynor-Doble have seen the benefits of positive workplace #mentalhealthinitiatives and support networks in their clinic.
Both #women have worked alongside people who have taken their own lives.
“Our industry is really starting to realise what a big issue this is,” Ms Traynor-Doble said.
“But unfortunately, [the realisation] has come about because the statistics about #suicide have been put out in the public and they’re absolutely shocking.
“I really want to make change in the industry. I want to be involved with positive change.”
Ms Brunskill added that peers were also increasingly looking out for one another to help cushion the stresses in the industry.
“We’ve really become family, and we’re a great team together,” she said.
Despite the immense occupational pressures and damning #suicide statistics, #veterinary workers like Dr Hicky remain wedded to their hard-earned careers, essential work, and the animals they adore.
“This isn’t just a career for me, it truly is a calling, for me” she said.
“So I don’t ever see myself as not continuing to be in #veterinarian and emergency and critical care, but I know I have to work with my general practitioner and a variety of other things, to keep myself as healthy as possible so I can keep helping these #patients.
“That’s what I do every day — work out how I can keep myself strong so I can keep sending #patients home to be with their families.”