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Mental Health Awareness Week: Veterinary wellbeing, a personal blog

As part of our Mental Health Awareness Week blog series, BVA Junior Vice-President Simon Doherty gives a personal account of his own experiences with mental health.

“Do you miss being a vet?” – In 2005, I ruptured a pars (intervertebral) spinal ligament and, literally, fell out of the progressive farm animal general practice role I’d dreamed about since childhood. Looking back, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I suffered a period of undiagnosed clinical depression as I scrambled around trying to redefine what veterinary medicine meant to me, and how I could find a way to establish a career path in the profession I loved going forwards.

I was bounced between a spinal orthopaedic surgeon (who was reluctant to operate on my back before I hit 40) and a neurosurgeon… who helpfully suggested that I should “do some small animal work”. I carefully explained to them at the time that that was like me suggesting they should both head off to practice some geriatric medicine – my professional interests were firmly in the production animal sector.

It was a really tough time, and undoubtedly contributed to the breakdown of my first marriage, with 2 young boys in the middle of it all.

The veterinary family

I was fortunate to have a fantastic family and friends (one of whom I subsequently married) around me. I had also established a fantastic professional network through BVA, and the North of Ireland Veterinary Association (NIVA). I did LOTS of talking and there are many colleagues who did LOTS of listening, and for that I will forever be extremely grateful. Collectively, my family, friends and colleagues brought me through a dark patch in my life and helped me to see the opportunities that lay ahead; helping me to focus on what I had rather than what I no longer had.

Several mentors helped me to redefine what I could potentially offer to the profession, albeit in a different role than I’d originally anticipated at graduation. As I started fairly conservative management of my injury, I spent two years establishing Veterinary Northern Ireland (VetNI), before diversifying into a research and development role as a Veterinary Research Officer at the Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI). There I got my veterinary career – with a focus still firmly on food production – back on track… albeit a different track!

There are lots of really good listeners out there who can signpost some great advice and direct you to other resources… please use them – if you don’t feel that you can talk to friends or family or close colleagues, please make contact with Vetlife… and you can even do that anonymously.

Also, see if you can identify a couple of career mentors – don’t be afraid to reach out to members of the profession who have inspired you in some way and tell them! Collectively, as a veterinary family we share a lot of life, as well as clinical, experience and most people are only too happy to share their stories about how they ended up doing whatever it is they are doing. The Vets: Stay, Go or Diversify (V:SGD) and Veterinary Voices UK Facebook groups have really helped to foster some of these relationships and it is great to see colleagues offering advice, sharing experiences and supporting one another.

It is better to give than to receive

Another tactic that undoubtedly helped me was to do some volunteering – it can be extremely rewarding to ‘give a little bit back’. We are all incredibly busy in our work and family lives but, with a little bit of planning ahead, it is possible to find some way to give something back.

I became registered as a STEM Ambassador – once or twice a year, I pop in to a local school to give a talk on veterinary careers or deliver a lesson to a GCSE science class – but this also provides me a platform from which I can mentor a few veterinary school applicants and help them to consider the full range of opportunities a veterinary career can open up.

I also wanted to find an alternative outlet for me to use my clinical skills and knowledge in farm animal production and became involved as an ambassador for the livestock development charity, Send a Cow.

I’m Chairman of Trustees of our local Scout Group, which I progressed through as a youngster and where my two sons are currently a Scout and an Explorer.

At the end of the day, none of these positions are massively onerous but I have been able to take my transferable skills – skills which we ALL have – and put them to some use outside of my ‘day job’. Have a think about how you might be able to help out on a voluntary basis, even just for a couple of sessions each year – those organisations will undoubtedly be grateful for your input and you will find it to be a very positive experience too!

Don’t be afraid to step a little bit out of your comfort zone

In the past, I wouldn’t necessarily have been someone who would’ve opened up a lot about my feelings. I hope that sharing my experiences hasn’t just provided me with some much-needed therapy – a problem shared is a problem halved! – but that it perhaps helps others to realise how much vets really do care about other vets and that there is no big secret in the fact that REAL life is full of challenges.

If you feel that you are under pressure, your patience is short, you haven’t as much energy or the same spark as you had before, please find someone to talk to – trust me, just talking can really help you to straighten a lot of things out in your head and generate some real perspective. But most of all, try to Be Kind – to everyone.


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