Being a vet with depression and anxiety – some truths beneath the mask

Posted on September 03, 2019

It struck me the other week - as I left my manager’s office, where I had spent over an hour being advised of the changes being put in place at work to support me through my recently acknowledged depression and anxiety - that whilst trying to help, there is clearly a huge misunderstanding of what it is actually like. Yes, I suffer from depression and anxiety, but I do function, I’m able to attend work, and work to a high standard by all accounts. I just need my employer to understand.

And in actual fact, if you don’t suffer from this, at times insidious, at times acute and crippling, and at times absent disease, why would you have a decent understanding? Many years ‘in’ and I’m only just starting to grasp that myself. We are told that mental health is no longer a dirty word, we all have mental health and we all exist on a spectrum of wellness to illness. We are advised to talk more openly about it, to confide in our peers, to seek help from our managers and to accept all the support available. Yet, in my own limited experience, owning up to your issue does not necessarily pave the way for appropriate help in the workplace. 

More than just an illness

It has been proposed by some that potential veterinary students should be screened for mental health issues. Whilst this may have some merit, I would argue that in trying to remove those with characteristics that increase the probability of depression entering the profession, we risk removing individuals who can make great vets. There is a strong evidence base that high sensitivity and high attention to detail, amongst others, are prevalent amongst sufferers of depression, and these are characteristics that if appropriately supported could make such personalities outstanding vets, not employer headaches.

How can you really help?

  • Chances are I don’t need my dangerous drugs access denied. Ask me, and seek professional advice if my answer doesn’t seem reliable, but don’t assume. It can feel pretty demeaning.
  • If I’m quiet, I may just be concentrating, I may be tired, I may be wanting to give others space. I may be depressed as hell, I may have had a fight with my other half, I may be worrying about my family, I may be stressed I’ve made a mistake at work. I may just be like every other non-depressed employee and be having a bad day. Don’t let depression become a reason for my every action.
  • I don’t need everything I do having attention drawn to, be it a good day or a bad day. I’m probably hyperaware and over vigilant to any comments that may be being made about me. Saying out loud that I’m looking good today or seeming happier is clearly so well intentioned but can be so destructive to the person who is struggling with massive self-consciousness and self-esteem issues. If possible, ask how I want to be treated, try to find out what helps and what doesn’t.
  • Also, don’t tread on egg shells around me. If I’ve done something wrong, tell me. Paranoia is an ever-present feature of anxiety and believe me, it’s better to trust that you will be told when you have done something wrong, rather than permanently worry that you must be doing everything wrong.
  • I don’t choose to have health appointments during work time. I’m lucky to have any NHS support and I can only have the available appointment times. It actually only adds to the anxiety, that feeling of being painfully aware that I may be an unreliable team member or I may have to rearrange the rota to fit in health appointments.  And I’m probably very stressed out that having to take time out of work to attend these appointments is likely to make me even more behind. Ease the pressure. Please.
  • If I have a slight tremor in my hand, or my voice seems shaky or my eyes seem shiny with stifled tears…either give me some privacy, or direct me to somewhere else that I can go and find out if there is any colleague who can support me.

The media message is tending towards encouraging colleagues to discuss their mental health. However, this runs parallel with a fear of the collateral damage that these conversations may cause; there is a concern that such conversations breed negativity in the workplace. I would argue that rather than quashing these conversations, allow them and provide support for the whole team on how to cope with your own and colleagues’ mental health. It is surely better to be aware of concerns regarding an employee and to deal with it appropriately rather than prevent them and risk a deeper and longer running crisis for an individual. Ultimately the latter will have the greater negative impact on the whole team.

So set reasonable boundaries. This can be a really lonely illness. I need to know if it’s okay to lean on friends at work and if it’s not, why not and where else can I turn?

Good days and bad days

Know that some days I’ve been awake half the night, ruminating over all the conversations from the day before, all the mistakes that I have made, all the ways that I have irritated colleagues. I’ve got dressed with a sinking feeling, rushed my kids to school, driven the final miles to work with an ever increasing dry mouth and wave of nausea washing over me. Know that as I walk through the front door I am fixing my smile, worrying about my appearance, balling my hands into fists in my pockets to hide the shake. That I’m sitting in a meeting, worrying what everyone is thinking of me, feeling so inexorably tired and frightened and alone. Churning gut and nervous bladder make me desperate for the loo but I don’t want to get up as I daren’t risk drawing attention to myself. Yet my mouth is speaking words of apparent wisdom, offering discussion points, suggesting answers. I can head out on a visit and lose myself in a tricky case, become absorbed in a surgical procedure, enjoy a conversation with an owner. 

Or I can lose the ability to speak and manage only the social niceties and the specifics of managing the cases. Wordlessly treating the animals or quietly typing up reports and analysing lab data become all I can manage. Those are the really bad days. The ones where I consider that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to come in and maybe I need to run away and quit my job and hide, hide, hide.

Know that some days I feel good. I feel happy. I feel excited about the working day ahead. The work social doesn’t fill me with anxiety. The mistakes seem acceptable, the achievements seem valid. The grin is genuine.

Let me do my job

And if I seem capable of doing my job then please let me. I may need some adjustments, just like an employee with a healing fracture or a pregnant employee. People differ, I like to work to keep my brain active and sometimes some extra CPD can be a real help, other times, I need politely but firmly reminding that I need to take a few days rest. Through it all, I want to work. I need to work. I want to be a good employee. I want to do the best for the animals in my care and the people that depend upon them. I’m still ambitious, I’m still intelligent, I’m still dedicated. I’m more than just an illness.

Vetlife Helpline offers confidential emotional support to everyone in the veterinary community. If there's something troubling you, please get in touch, either by phone on 0303 040 2551, or email for confidential support.