Abi Hanson

Courageous Conversations Conference 2021 – personal reflections as the new MMI Officer

Abi Hanson started working as the Mind Matters Initiative Officer in June 2021. She graduated from The University of Bristol in 2018 with a 2:1 in French and Italian before taking a year out to see the world. In 2019, she landed an internship at a public relations agency and later moved on to work in international corporate events. Mental health, animal welfare and conservation have always been close to Abi’s heart and, before landing her role at the RCVS, she started writing her own blog to encourage others to be more open about their experiences with mental health. Abi is delighted to be working as a part of the Mind Matters team and is determined to use her combined passion for people, animals and wellbeing to drive positive change within the veterinary profession.

On Tuesday 6th July 2021, I had the privilege of attending the Courageous Conversations Conference run by the University of Surrey School of Veterinary Medicine in collaboration with the British Veterinary Ethnicity and Diversity Society (BVEDS). The conference was launched last year to provide a platform for students and colleagues championing equality and diversity within veterinary education. As the new Mind Matters Initiative Officer, I was keen to learn as much as possible about the challenges facing minority groups within the veterinary profession, and what is being done to create a more diverse and inclusive workforce.

The conference was opened by Issa Robson of BVEDS, who warmly welcomed each and every one of us. It was clear from the start that this was going to be a safe space free of judgment where everyone could feel comfortable speaking honestly and openly about their experiences. She introduced the programme which included topics such as Neurodiversity, Decolonising the curriculum, GRT (Gypsy, Roma, Traveller) Inclusivity in Veterinary Education, and student facilitated workshops for ADHD, Autism & Dyslexia. There were also interactive workshops run by British Chronic Illness Society (BCVIS) and British Veterinary LGBT+ (BVLGBT+).

Progress…one year on

After Issa’s welcome speech, attention then shifted to the panel, who shared just some of the fantastic work which had been achieved since last year’s Courageous Conversations Conference.

Widening participation:

First to reflect was Kate Oliver from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) who helped create the Widening Participation (WP) Vet School Network after meeting likeminded professionals at last year’s conference. WP aims to make the veterinary world more accessible to students from underrepresented backgrounds who may not otherwise consider applying to vet school.

WP are currently running several successful projects, including a scholarship programme and summer school programme, which provides in depth courses for underrepresented groups on how to get into vet school. These programmes have proven to be highly successful, with almost 80% of recent participants reporting an increase in confidence in becoming a vet.

BVA good workplaces:

Next up was Daniela Dos Santos from the BVA who introduced us to the findings of the BVA Good Workplaces Report. This work was a joint venture from the BVA and VetFutures who recognised that people need to feel valued, accepted and have access to role models if they are likely to stay in the profession. Creating an inclusive, supportive working environment where people feel comfortable to be themselves is hugely important when it comes to staff retention.

The BVA are asking practices to commit to their Good Veterinary Workplaces Voluntary Code which aims to address the challenges encountered in veterinary workplaces. The code includes 64 practical recommendations for employers on how to create a more supportive working environment. There is also a workbook which employers and employees can look through together to see how they can work towards a becoming a better workplace.

Additionally, the BVA are currently running a webinar series in collaboration with VDS training to discuss key workplace challenges.

BVCIS:

Then it was over to Claire Hodgson from BVCIS who spoke about her work supporting those with chronic illnesses. The BVCIS is in the final stages of becoming a registered charity and has already done lots of amazing work to help those suffering with chronic illnesses feel more supported in the profession.

Over the past year, the BVCIS ran two community groups allowing likeminded people to come together to discuss the barriers facing those with chronic illness in the veterinary world. Key themes included feeling like an outsider, the inability to attend social events due to the assumption that everyone is able-bodied, the expectation and pressure of working long hours, and the need for greater understanding of what support is available to chronically ill students.

Claire also ran a panel session and workshop at this year’s Courageous Conversations Conference on how to navigate university, knowing your rights and what resources are available to you as a chronically ill student and how to apply for your first job.

Personal reflections…

Despite not having attended any of the workshops (these were more student-focussed), I attended two panel discussions which were thoroughly insightful. The first was ‘Neurodiversity and Disability: from class to clinic’, and the second the ‘BCVIS Chronic Illness and Disability Panel’. Both sessions were delivered by both colleagues and students. This was a particularly effective set-up as it allowed the audience to become fully engaged in the topics being discussed – everyone felt represented. The students were willing to speak out and give first-hand accounts of the difficulties they had experienced at university and the colleagues were there to listen and discuss ways in which to make vet student life more inclusive (many of the colleagues themselves had also had to overcome similar challenges whilst at university which made the whole event much more relatable). It was an open collaborative learning experience which was highly productive for everyone involved.

I personally found demystifying the disability assessment process and student disability allowance particularly useful. Having been diagnosed with ADHD myself during my final year of university, I could relate to how difficult it can be when it comes to the difficulties in knowing what support is available to you and how to access it. Then there’s the stigma…the voice in your head saying “what if people think I’m just trying to cheat?” “What if I just need to work harder and I’m not worthy of the extra support?” “How do I access support in the first place?” “What forms of support am I eligible for?” This can be stressful for anyone, let alone for those who are already vulnerable and slowly drowning in the immense workload of being a veterinary student! (It’s worth noting that I didn’t study veterinary, so I can only imagine how tough it must be for those with chronic illnesses to try to keep up with the physical demands of the training along with all the studying). The panel offered practical advice on how to access support and opened the floor to questions.

Across all discussions, there was one common theme that kept arising: the need to break down stigmas. Many students expressed they hadn’t previously wanted to seek support because they were afraid of being perceived as incapable. They therefore had no idea about the kind of resources they could access. As one student rightly pointed out, it ultimately all comes down to clear communication. People need to feel confident enough to communicate their needs and learn not to be ashamed of the things they can’t do, but rather celebrate the things they’re brilliant at. The profession needs to make it clear that they will be heard without judgement.

Life would be boring if we all acted in the same way, saw things in the same way and had the same ideas which is exactly why diversity should be celebrated. We cannot hope to advance the profession or society without it. We all have value, and all bring something different to the table. Courageous Conversations has provided the perfect launchpad for change. There were so many people involved in the conference from so many different backgrounds, but everyone was working towards the same goal. There is strength in being “different” and that should always be celebrated.

Final thoughts moving forward…

My main takeaway from my first ever veterinary event is that there is still a lot of work to be done to make the veterinary world a more inclusive, accessible and diverse place. However, so much more can be achieved when we work together and that’s exactly what is being done with the students, colleagues and organisations involved in Courageous Conversations. We have to support each other as change can’t be created alone.

As the Mind Matters Initiative Officer, I’m working more specifically on improving mental health in the profession, but that alone isn’t enough to make lasting positive change. It’s essential that we all gain a solid understanding of the interconnectedness and complexity of creating a happy, healthy and productive community. Mental health, physical health, diversity, and inclusivity may seem like separate entities, but we cannot hope to move forward unless we work together to abolish the stigma that being so-called “different” is bad…because “different” isn’t bad. It’s essential. “Different” drives positive change.

Debbie Martin SVN

Autism and the veterinary professions

Debbie Martin SVN

I’m Debbie and I’m a second year SVN from Bath. I’m the owner of two cats, one of whom was born without a functioning pituitary gland and so has multiple conditions including pituitary dwarfism. She keeps me very busy with lots of medication and vet trips. Her team of vets and nurses at Bath Vet Group are the best! I love all things feline and have just gained a distinction in the ISFM Certificate in Feline Nursing. I also love wild swimming and can often be found swimming in the local lake! I’m passionate about diversity in the veterinary profession and so felt it was important to write this blog post to raise awareness of how the profession can be more welcoming and supportive.

Being autistic in a neurotypical world presents a number of challenges. Veterinary practices can be very loud, bright and hectic places that come with their own challenges for autistic individuals who work within them or who are clients. With a few simple adjustments, practices can become more accessible for autistic colleagues and clients.

I am currently a second-year student veterinary nurse. I have already faced huge amounts of stigma and discrimination within the profession due to being autistic. My ability to become a veterinary nurse has been questioned a number of times, based solely on my diagnosis. I have come close to quitting many times due to this. The reality, however, is that I have excelled in the theory side of my training, and have now proven that, with some adjustments in place, I can excel in the practical elements of the profession too.

When I am in ‘nurse mode,’ I can do anything that any other nurse can do. I can communicate well with clients, work well under pressure, and give the best nursing possible to the animals in my care. This does come at a cost though. I find ‘masking’ mentally exhausting. I become hypersensitive to the noises around me, to the bright lights in the practice, and can become overwhelmed. This is where practices can step in and support me. Simple adjustments to my working day can really help and prevent me from burning out. Allowing me to have a break mid-way through the day to re-energise without any interaction with other people really helps. An understanding that, during my lunch break, I may want to sit in silence and not join in with social chit chat can be beneficial. This isn’t me being anti-social, but what I need to do to allow me to get through the day.

I struggle with changes to my routine and so letting me know about changes to practice policies or working hours in advance really helps me deal with these changes. I may also need to ask lots of questions in order to understand something new, especially when the instructions that I am given are vague or open to interpretation.

Being autistic can also be very useful in the veterinary profession. I can hyperfocus on what I am doing and will notice tiny changes that others may not notice. This is beneficial when monitoring an anaesthetic for example. I can retain huge amounts of factual information, such as anatomy and physiology, and I excel at maths (my first degree is in maths) and calculations, which is useful when dealing with drugs. I also cannot cope with being late for anything and so will always be reliable and on time.

As well as being a student veterinary nurse, I am also the owner of two cats, one of whom has to regularly visit her referral vet who is based in a busy hospital. My cats are my life and I want to do the absolute best I can for them. Vet visits however can be very stressful for both myself and them. Appointments often run late due to the nature of the job, and can seem rushed, with lots of information and instructions given to the client in a short amount of time. This can be overwhelming for an autistic client.

The practice that my cats attend is fantastic. They know that I am autistic and make adjustments for me. If the vet is running late, the receptionists will keep me updated regularly. If I started to struggle with sensory overload in the busy waiting room (pre-covid), they would let me wait in an empty consult room or in the car until the vet was ready. They also understand that I can struggle with lengthy verbal instructions and so they are more than happy for me to have an email conversation with them after the appointment to confirm what was said and for me to ask any questions that I have. They also understand that sometimes I find phone calls challenging, and so they let me book appointments and order medication by email. These simple adjustments make a huge difference to me and make appointments accessible.

Autistic individuals are diligent owners and skilful colleagues, and with the right understanding and support can be a real asset to a veterinary practice.

Charlotte Wood

VetKind: a wellbeing community

Charlotte Wood is a newly qualified Registered Veterinary Nurse who qualified with her degree from University Centre Sparsholt in Hampshire. She is a student council member on the British Veterinary Nursing Association’s (BVNA) council and is currently undertaking her BSc top-up degree. Charlotte enjoys spending time with her dog, cat, horse and family in her spare time

On 21 November 2020 VetKind hosted its third annual online wellbeing webinar event designed and created by the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) and SkillsTree professional development, with support from the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative (MMI). It was a free virtual event for veterinary and veterinary nursing students in the UK and Ireland. On the day there were over 100 participants that attended VetKind.

VetKind is an interactive and student-led programme, looking at positive psychology and neuroscience and how this applies to being a student. They use evidence-based research and information to look at challenges that students face and provide strategies to students to try to cope with these challenges. This event comprised of lectures, as well as tasks and resources; some of which were provided prior to the event. A ‘take-home toolkit’ was also provided after the event, as well as access to the recordings of the sessions and lectures that took place during the event.

The whole event provided key information and guidance to students, whilst also keeping a fun and informal feeling. There was lots of chat from all attendees, who were involved and interactive with the discussions throughout.

This year there were three incredible speakers, Jenny Moffett, Jenny Lynden and Ru Clements, all of which provided with lectures throughout the morning, there were four lectures in total with these talks on: Building emotional agility, Finding your “yes” and “no” voice, Imposter syndrome: a coaching approach and Dealing with conflict.

The afternoon consisted of an interactive online VetKind Escape Room! These entailed students breaking out into small groups to tackle the escape rooms collectively, which enabled them to see if they could escape by working through tasks and exercises. Prior to attempting the escape room, the small groups got to know each other and explained their backgrounds – a great way of networking and getting to know your veterinary professional peers!

The ‘chatter’ throughout the event was lively and buzzing, with comments and ideas from veterinary students and veterinary nursing students combined. Common themes emerged which all students could resonate with and it was clear that many of them were feeling the same. Attendees continued to share their experiences and coping strategies throughout the day, focussing on how to cope with certain feelings and emotions; there was a real sense of community throughout the whole event. At the end of the day all attendees were asked to share the ideas, tips and practical strategies that have got them through 2020 so far. The idea voted as the ‘top tip’ by the AVS team was “Don’t waste valuable energy on people that don’t give you the same energy back”, which is something I am sure we can all relate to and take on board.

Looking ahead, a poll carried out during the event asked what topics students would like to hear from about from Mind Matters, which resulted in 68 of students asking for more about ‘managing balance in your life’.  However other themes also included: resilience (44 votes), tools for positive reflection (40 votes) and mental health awareness (27 votes).

There was an abundant sense of support for each other and positivity throughout the day,  even with the given circumstances that students are facing in these times. The event was thoroughly enjoyable throughout and from the post-event survey, 100% of participants would recommend VetKind to a friend or colleague. Personally, I could not recommend this event enough and I am very excited for the next VetKind event!

Charlotte Wood RVN, BVNA Representative

Dr Kate Stephen

Listening and learning: an update on the SRUC’s farm vet wellbeing project

Dr Kate Stephen is a behavioural scientist at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC). In 2019 she was the recipient of the inaugural Sarah Brown Mental Health Research Grant to fund research into mental health in the farm animal veterinary sector with the aim of identifying how to better promote job satisfaction and break the cycle of negative thoughts and poor mental wellbeing identified amongst farm vets. Here she reports on some of her findings from the qualitative research she conducted with farm vets working in rural Scotland.

Just over a year ago, I could be found sitting in a quiet office in the north of Scotland, headphones on, recording telephone conversations with farm vets (with their consent).  A year later, I still think about some of the people I spoke to and what they told me. 

It was great to hear the ‘best bits of the job’ being described, such as the thrill of seeing a live calf after a complicated calving – which even vets of 40 years’ experience mentioned.  It was clear that for many, being a vet was so much more than a job and being a farm vet was a lifestyle choice which provided a sense of purpose, identity and fitted with their preference for spending time outdoors.  Some farm vets simply like farmers and love cows!

When your job is such a big part of what defines you and when positive outcomes can bring such joy, the impact of negative outcomes and the undermining effect of difficult times at work have the potential to leave vets vulnerable. Some vets described times when they sank into despair, were stripped bare of their confidence, or where the words and actions of others had squashed any joy they had felt about the job. For some, these were recollections of times past – what they then said about how they coped was inspirational.

How farm vets cope can vary between individuals. There is no silver bullet, more a range of actions and attitudes which they use to avoid or respond to low points. Some talked of light diversions such as songs to sing along to. Some talked more deeply, of their faith and/or their philosophy. Experience was highlighted as having a hugely beneficial effect. Others changed job, specialised, or diversified.

A dead calf is always going to be difficult to a farm vet who cares about their job. The inevitability of death and disease … and difficult farmers … means that coping mechanisms are necessary.  And because of this, some of the more experienced vets were keen to encourage new or more recent graduates, not least in coping with negative outcomes, as illustrated by this quote: “When I first graduated I’d think, ‘it’s all my fault, because it’s me’ and it’s only since I’ve gained more experience … realising that these fatalist irrational thoughts are getting me nowhere, and it’s exhausting”.

Clearly, vets of all ages and stages are likely to have times when they struggle. It is normal and to be expected. From personal experience, one vet advised, “at some point you do have to take responsibility for your own mental health, and that’s a way of empowering yourself, and helping yourself a little bit.” There was a consensus about the first step in this process – talking to someone.  Whether a family member, friend, work colleague, or a helpline. 

One vet emphasised, “It’s not an admission of failure to talk to someone else.  You can always find someone, even if you have to go to someone like Vetlife.  It’s a failure not to.”

I felt very privileged that so many farm vets talked to me about how they felt when they were struggling … and inspired by the ways they coped.  Much of what they said is available on www.howfarmvetscope.co.uk

For me, the take home message from our study is that throughout the highs and lows of practice as a farm vet and despite the isolation that can come with the job, you are not alone. There are other farm vets out there who know what life is like for you.  hey’d like you to talk to them about it.

Fergus Mitchell pictured with his dog

The power of exercise (*and community) II

Fergus Mitchell

Half a year, or so, has passed since I wrote part one of this blog for MMI. It’s safe to say that sunny July feels like a distant memory! But within the whirlwind of a year that 2020 has been, I wrote my dissertation focussing on the importance of exercise for veterinary students’ mental wellbeing. The study was kindly supported by MMI, without whom it would not have been possible to conduct.

For those reading now who were enjoying a lockdown-free(?) summer when the first blog was published, then here is a little summary of what our project at the University of Nottingham consisted of:

We invited first year, female vet students, who self-identified as exercising less than the NHS minimum physical activity guidelines for adults, to participate in the study. We offered the students a free, eight-week exercise programme including three sessions of activity per week.

The three sessions included:

  1. A circuits session led by the same instructor weekly.
  2. An intro to sports session led by individuals from already established sport societies on Sutton Bonington campus (ie netball, badminton, football). The sport changed weekly.
  3. A stretch/ reflect session led by myself and another student.

We had 12 participants and each were given a questionnaire at three stages during the programme. Eleven participants fully completed all three questionnaires. We were only  forced to cancel two sessions and a life coaching session was offered too.

Questionnaire 1 (before the programme) consisted of:

Questionnaire 2 (mid-way through) consisted of:

  • 14 point Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale
  • Open response questions
  • 5-point Likert Scale Survey focussed on students’ motivations for participation in the programme

Questionnaire 3 (at the end) consisted of:

  • 14 point Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale
  • Open response questions
  • 5-point Likert Scale Surveys focussed on:
    • Students’ motivations for participation in the programme
    • Whether the programme met the expectations the students had
    • The impact of the programme on the students

A final wellbeing questionnaire was used six months after the programme, but this was not included in my dissertation due to time.

I represented the quantitative data graphically, and measured the difference in individual’s WEMWBS scores from the start to the end of the project. I thematically analysed the open response questions and made a thematic map to represent the findings (see Figure 1).

I’d like to highlight the main findings from the study and have chosen three points to focus on in this blog.

1. Exercise and mental wellbeing are positively linked

Ok… so this statement is not revolutionary and I doubt it will come as a surprise to anyone. However, what this programme reiterated is that exercise is beneficial for mental wellbeing. The majority of the participants’ individual wellbeing scores increased (see Table 1) and five increased unequivocally (in accordance with the WEMWBS guide). The 14 point WEMWBS scores can range from 14 to 70 (higher score = better wellbeing).

We cannot dismiss the fact that changes in wellbeing will have been affected by other factors too. As made clear by some of the open response questions, factors such as academic stress, housing issues and other stresses all contributed to increases or decreases in some participant’s mental wellbeing. Yet many commented on how the exercise programme directly impacted their mental wellbeing positively, supporting the positive changes in WEMWBS scores.

Exercise can come in many forms, as illustrated by our programme. Whether it be fully fledged team sport, individual or group exercise, stretching and yoga, a simple walk or even in a consult room, as suggested by the VetFit team! And that it the great thing about it. There are many options (in normal times) to explore exercise and what suits you best.

2. Community matters

The second point is that community was a very important factor for the participants, and it was clear that the exercise programme provided a community for them in which they felt comfortable. Many participants felt as much of an obligation to their peers as they did themselves to complete the programme, demonstrating the importance of the community created.

It is ironic that I’m writing this at a time when community, in its physical form, is very much restricted. However, in the future I believe that it is incredibly important that maximum effort is continued to make  the profession a supportive community for all. Initially, as a first-year vet student, due to an array of stresses from academic to transitional, not everyone lands on their feet with a great sense of community. Although it may happen for some, we should continue to focus on how community can play such a vital role in students’ mental wellbeing. Exercise groups are a great way to aid this. However community is not limited to sports teams, classes, running buddies and so on. Any community within the profession or at universities can help the wellbeing of students, even virtual communities too.

One definition of community from the Oxford Dictionary is:

“The condition of sharing or having certain attitudes and interests in common.”

For me, this definition encapsulates the notion that anything and everything can lead to a community, all that is required is people with commonalities. And that is where the sense of community prevailed in this programme; 12 veterinary students who had a common interest in wanting to participate in an exercise programme and explore how it could impact them.

It is admittedly vague putting the onus on ‘community’ to help achieve better wellbeing, but I believe it is something that should be kept in the back of everyone’s mind as we move forward.

3. Stress

Finally, I wanted to touch on the S word: stress. It is a word bandied about frequently within the profession. In a range of ways it was often referred to by our participants or inferred from their responses when they were asked to comment on their perceived state of wellbeing. Finding a healthy work-life balance, even at such an early stage of a veterinary career, is evidently hard and although this isn’t a new issue, I believe it’s still important to highlight.

The responses from all the questionnaires were submitted before Covid dominated our lives, although it was on the horizon. Therefore, the stresses mentioned do not represent the exacerbated stress reported due to the pandemic. However, on the flipside, despite the many negative effects of the pandemic, there is reason to believe that it may have made us more in-tune with our mental health and what is important to us too. So, we may see a general change in behaviour with regards to wellbeing and mental health on the other side of Covid – but that is purely a hope of mine!!

As a profession we must continue to acknowledge common stresses and continue further research into ways of coping with them. Many participants commented on how the exercise programme gave them structure and a means to combat some of those stresses, which was encouraging to see.

Overall, hopefully my research and two blogs have reiterated the power exercise has to benefit our mental wellbeing. Additionally, I hope they have illustrated the power of community too and as we progress through to the light at the end of the Covid-tunnel, both exercise and community can be of paramount importance for the veterinary profession.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone within the profession who is making and has made the time to focus on wellbeing and mental health. Exercise for me is a great way to help my mind and body, and I hope that the exercise programme at Nottingham helped a few of my peers see the benefits too.

Unfortunately we were unable to run a parallel programme with members of the first-year, April cohort at Nottingham but I hope similar studies will take place at other universities in the future.

Once again, I’d like to extend my thanks and gratitude to the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative team for help with funding and publishing the blogs, the UoN Sports staff for allowing us to use their facilities at a reduced rate, all the sports societies’ presidents and captains for giving up their time. Georgie Bladon, Sabine Tötemeyer and Amy Sansby who were brilliant support and Caroline Quarmby for her volunteering to lead the circuit sessions. A big thank you to the VetFit team for their inspiration and support too. And of course, thank you to all the participants for giving their time and energy to the programme! 


Thematic map findings - The power of exercise (*and community) II

Figure 1. Thematic map


change in score from Q1-Q3 (points)Wellbeing changeNumber of Individuals
8+Unequivocally meaningful positive wellbeing change5
3-7Possibly meaningful positive wellbeing change2
0-3No meaningful change3
(Negative) 3-7Possibly meaningful negative wellbeing change1
Table 1. – Changes in WEMWBS scores of participants from the beginning of the project to the end (Q1-Q3)

Susan Dawson

World Mental Health Day 2020: Reflections on the last five years

Susan Dawson, Mind Matters Initiative Chair

Today marks world Mental Health Day, with a theme of ‘mental health for all’. It presents an opportune moment to reflect on the last five years of the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative, and to look ahead at what’s next for us. MMI recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, and although we weren’t able to hold the planned celebration due to the pandemic, we held a webinar hosted by The Webinar Vet to celebrate the milestone and look back on some of our achievements.

Since its launch in 2015, one of the core activities of MMI has been raising awareness of mental health in the professions, giving people the tools to stay well, seek help and look after themselves and others. Our Mental Health Awareness training is central to this, with over 1700 vets, vet nurses and practice staff attending our sessions over the last five years. We’ve also teamed up with the British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA), whose generous support has allowed us to deliver both mental health awareness training, and a series of successful resilience training sessions, equipping delegates with the tools to successful navigate the challenges of veterinary practice.

With support from experts from inside the veterinary community and beyond, we’ve delivered an array of webinars on a wide number of topics relating to mental health and wellbeing, including mindfulness, sleep, Obsessive-compulsive Disorder, self-harm, anxiety, and managing remotely during Covid-19. Following feedback from the professions we’ve got plans for further webinars addressing topics like neurodiversity and men’s mental health.

Working with and for students is a vital part of what MMI does. We want to make sure that our veterinary and veterinary nursing students are well supported, and that they have the skills and resilience to thrive as they move into practice. MMI regularly sponsors student-led  activities and research, like the recent study into exercise and wellbeing carried out by students at Nottingham University. We also sponsor students to run the ever-popular Failure Friday events – where they can hear about the less successful moments of more experienced members of the profession, and learn that everybody makes mistakes – it’s how we learn and move on from them that counts.

Last year we ran our first ever student roundtable, which was a fantastic opportunity for veterinary schools and students to come together and learn from each other about what works in student support, and where there are still gaps. This year we will be replicating this event for student nurses – although it will need to be held online due to the ongoing coronavirus situation. We’ve also been delighted to support VetKind, a facilitated online space run in collaboration with the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) and Jenny Moffett of SkillsTree, where students can learn about and reflect on mental health and wellbeing.

Since our launch we have hosted two successful veterinary mental health research symposiums which have provided opportunities for us to learn from the existing evidence base and think about where there remain gaps to be filled. We have also committed to making an annual research grant in memory of RCVS Council member Sarah Brown, who sadly died in 2017. This year we made not one, but two grants totalling £40,000, which will be looking at moral injury and racism respectively –  both timely and important topics for the professions.

Right now is a difficult time for the professions, with the pandemic creating challenges for all of us and affecting everything about how we live, work and socialise. Now, more than ever, it’s so important to look after ourselves and each other. Over the last six months we’ve delivered a number of webinars on topics relating to Covid-19 and have also published a comprehensive A-Z of Help providing tips and resources that will be useful during the pandemic. With many of us working remotely, isolation can be a problem and so have introduced online ‘Reflection Time’ sessions, providing a space for members of the veterinary community to come together and reflect on different topics relating to the emotional aspects of their job. As the pandemic continues, with things remaining uncertain, we’ll be looking at more ways we can support the veterinary community.

Today, to mark World Mental Health Day, I’m delighted to share an animation we have developed in collaboration with British Equine Veterinary Association (BEVA), which addresses mental health and wellbeing among equine vets. We are also publishing a new &Me story from vet James Glass, who has generously shared his experiences with us. Keep an eye on our Twitter page, where we’ll be using today to highlight some of our resources and achievements.

Isobel Arthur

Lockdown reflections from a 5th year

I think everyone can agree that lockdown has been a massive shock to the system. But it has also been a steep learning curve. During these rollercoaster times, I have not only learnt more about society and how we can work together to support each other, but also about myself and how to be kind to myself as well as others.

When lockdown was first announced, I (like many of my fellow students) returned home, assuming it would only be for a few weeks. However, what was presumed to be a relatively brief few weeks, was now likely to be closer to months.

Whilst adapting to this new normal brought about by the Coronavirus pandemic, many students were still trying to revise for upcoming exams, myself included. This period, saw many exams across universities postponed, while others were moved online. How different would this prove sat at home, perhaps in front of open books? Initially, like many others, I struggled to work out how to revise and adapt my learning in order to best to tackle these changes. Although, I soon realised that these exams, while still stressful and difficult, were no different to the exams I had sat many times before, just under different circumstances and that it was my attitude toward them that needed to change above anything else. It was from this epiphany that I realised I needed to be kinder to myself and give myself a break. Exams, while still important, are not worth disregarding your own mental health and wellbeing. The premise of striving towards the tough task of passing any vet school exam is difficult at the best of times while juggling life. Given we are not in wholly conducive circumstances, amidst uncertain times, the usual standards and benchmarks we set may not be attainable or realistic in our new ‘normal’.

Moreover, we must not disregard the mammoth achievement of the 2020 graduating class for successfully completing vet school, during a pandemic, to become what is likely to be the first in a long line of the most adaptable vets to date. The end of vet school is usually heralded by a day of graduation gowns, champagne and dad’s trying to hide their tears. However, this has had to adapt and change, as with most events this year. Across the UK and Ireland, graduation ceremonies have been held in gardens, on beaches and in forests, with home-made caps and gowns and a virtual ceremony. While many will be disappointed that they were not able to attend the traditional graduation, I see this as a feat of ingenuity of the 2020 graduating class. Not only have they conquered one of the toughest and most demanding university courses, but they have also made a graduation day for themselves that they will never forget, with their
friends and family able to sit through the whole thing with them. It is unlikely that any other graduating class will have an experience quite as individual as they have, and that is something that should be cherished, not begrudged.

In these ever-changing times, we must look to the future and think what we can take to improve ourselves from this experience. If nothing else, the past few months have taught me just how resourceful and adaptable we can all be as a profession. It would have been all too easy to stick to the old ways and struggle to stay afloat, but we have adapted and taken this as an opportunity to improve. Realising that it is OK to have a break, to be kind to yourself, to talk to others is as much a survival skill as any. Learning to change our ways of learning and living only proves to hone our problem solving skills as vets. Every situation, even a pandemic, has its positives if you dare to look close enough, and changing to a more positive outlook is the first step to finding these opportunities.

Isobel Arthur, AVS president 2020-21

Fergus Mitchell pictured with his dog

The power of exercise

Fergus Mitchell (pictured) is a 3rd year veterinary student at Nottingham University. He is the VetSoc’s Welfare Officer this academic year and is passionate about promoting mental health awareness amongst his peers. Combined with his love for sport, this has led him to start his own research into how exercise can positively impact vet students and others within the profession.

Exercise is good for us. It’s not rocket science or veterinary science for that matter, and in most cases it’s hard to argue otherwise. Regular physical exercise is well documented to benefit our physical and mental health. The recent lockdown in the UK has highlighted this further. During April and May “one hour of exercise a day” became a buzz phrase, alongside “stay at home” and “essential travel only”. Exercise was one of the things we could do, even if it were not our ‘normal’.

But, (there is always a catch, or this blog would not be worth your time) do you wish that you had more regular exercising habits?

The intense, demanding work hours vets, nurses, and students all encounter probably leave us short of time. Coupled with family lives, social lives, and never-ending to-do lists, we have plenty of reasons to not spend hours in the gym or play for local sports teams on a weekend.

I am sure a lot of members of the profession successfully manage to achieve these endeavours, but then I ask, when times get tough is it exercise that gets dropped?

I cannot speak for everyone, however, when it comes to a pressure point in my studies, for example, during exam time or on a placement, I struggle to exercise. No matter how much I know it is good for me and would help alleviate any stress, I fail to don my trainers and get out.

This personal struggle of mine and a passion for championing mental health awareness, led me to an informative talk held in the vet school. Charlie Mays chatted about his and Andy Rose’s work to set up VetFit, a research driven service for the veterinary community, which they founded after carrying out a study at the RVC. Their work led to institutional changes at their university and ignited a spark within me. For more details on their service and excellent work, search @Vetfitinsta on Instagram or visit the VetFit website.

One thing that resonated with me from that evening was this concept:

As members of the veterinary profession, it is common to identify as a vet/ vet nurse/ vet student before anything else. Many of us are so passionate about our work, it is understandably easy to let it identify us. However, does this subconscious mindset control us when it does come to pressure points (as I shared, in my experience so far, exams and placements). Do we forget the other things that make us happy and relaxed, such as exercise and sport?

After all, taking 20 minutes out of my day to go for a jog or stretching should not be an issue, I am not talking marathons or rugby matches here!

I was intrigued and wondered how we can change our habits for the better as members of a profession which is sadly, more frequently associated with poor mental wellbeing.

To investigate this further, I met with a couple of brilliant staff members here at Nottingham and planned to carry out our own research. At the time of writing this we have completed the data collection phase.

We invited first year, female vet students, who self-identified as exercising less than the NHS minimum physical activity guidelines for adults*, to participate in the project. We offered the students a free, 8-week exercise program comprising 3 sessions of activity per week.

The 3 sessions included:

  1. A circuits session led by the same instructor weekly.
  2. An intro to sports session led by individuals from already established sport societies on Sutton Bonington campus (I.e. netball, badminton, football). The sport changed weekly.
  3. A stretch/ reflect session led by myself and another student. The idea being to have a lower intensity session, relaxing the mind and body.

We had 12 participants who measured their well-being at the start, half-way through and at the end of the program, using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scales. They will take a final well-being measurement 6 months after the program has ended. We aim to analyse how the structured, 8-week exercise program impacted the lives of our participants and if it has had any long-lasting effects.

We also asked for the participant’s resting heart rate at the start and end of the project and once a week during the peak intensity of their circuits session.

Additionally, we recruited a life coach to deliver a life coaching session during the program, which hopefully allowed the participants to reflect on their progress made.

Initially, we envisaged running an identical program for members of the first year April Cohort of vet students, starting their course this spring. However, due to the pandemic, their arrival on campus was postponed and as such we have not been able to go ahead with that this year.

The data collected will be analysed as part of my 3rd year dissertation at Nottingham University and I hope to share any findings with you in another blog soon.

I’d like to extend my thanks and gratitude to the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative team for helping us with funds, the UoN Sports staff for allowing us to use their facilities at a reduced rate, all the sports societies’ presidents and captains for giving up their time, Georgie Bladon, Sabine Tötemeyer and Amy Sansby who were brilliant support and Caroline Quarmby for kindly offering to take the circuits session each week for free. And of course, thanks to all the participants for giving their time and energy to the program too!

Without these people the project would not have been possible to run.

*NHS guidelines for adults – do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity a week or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity a week.

Ami Sawran, veterinary surgeon

Lessons from lockdown

Ami Sawran, veterinary surgeon

When I’m looking at all of this as a calm and rational person, lockdown is a situation in which I can truly take stock of the things I have taken for granted in my professional and personal life. It is also a catalyst for reaffirming just how grateful I am for the good things in my life; for example, the fact that neither my partner nor I have been driven up the wall by the other’s constant presence, typing, or thinking too loudly, the fact that my dog is truly hilarious, and that my shed really did need a good tidy-out. I’ve painted all my kitchen furniture, built the dog and obstacle course, and I’ve also learned to knit, which I think is fascinating, but I can see that people are going to get bored of my enthusiastic creations very soon.

I’ve found that connection and communication can be both a blessing and a curse in this time. Conversation is wonderful, but I must be in the mood for it, hence appearing ‘always available’ because we cannot go anywhere can feel a little overwhelming. It has also been difficult to distance myself from work because my office is about 5 metres from my bedroom. I’ve had to set firmer boundaries about my ‘free’ time and work time, because they’re not delineated by a commute anymore. Social media has also been an absolute riot – I love watching people do kind, community spirited things, but I also have quickly come to hate watching bored people bitch at each other or get into verbose competitions about who is doing lockdown better. I have to take my social media time in short bursts, or I can lose a day to mindless and frankly depressing chatter about nothing at all. Again, when I’m being fair and rational, I can see that many people are just scared and looking to blame someone for their feels, but in the moment, it can be a bit much. But I have to say, groups such as Vets: Stay Go or Diversify have been really fun, and my (non-vet) friend has started a venture called ‘Quiz Nights for the Quarantine’, which has kept me entertained. I have also taken a weird few days of annual leave, which saw me planted firmly in front of Netflix for eight-hour long stretches, and I’m not even remotely sorry for that. It was great.

This has not all been a lesson in how grateful and lucky I am; I’ve had my down times. Sudden restriction on anyone’s freedom is bound to make them feel things ranging from ‘a bit out of sorts’ to downright depressed, anxious and insecure and frightened. I recognise that with a stable home and job, I am one of the lucky ones. Nevertheless, I’ve had days where I have had a big cry and mourned the (seemingly irrelevant) things I was looking forward to which have been cancelled. I’ve had a cry solely dedicated to fear of getting sick myself, or loved ones being ill. I’ve also had days where I just felt entirely flat, without being able to pinpoint a real reason. I feel like this fluctuation in mood and hopefulness is normal, at least, that’s what I am telling myself. Boring as it sounds, I am helped by simply taking each day as it comes, because I genuinely don’t have any choice but to.

My anxiety generally flares in situations where I can’t make plans or get things done in an agreeable (and potentially unreasonable) timescale. Luckily, from the outset, my company (VetPartners) was incredibly proactive in collating information and providing guidelines to support our daily activities.  Thus, I’ve been able to surrender myself to the mysterious inevitability of it all. We had good boundaries in place and fora in which to ask questions. Vets immediately started to work from home, and luckily, we have good enough IT to make remote working very easy. This helped settle me personally, so then I, with the help of the rest of Westpoint’s wellbeing group, decided to create a resource that would help other people adjust to working from home, westpointwellbeing.com. The site is open to contributors, but for the most part I have been posting daily work-from-home workouts, and linking to good procrastination outlets, free CPD, and tips for productive work from home. I started a VetPartners run club on Strava, to coax some running motivation too. We also had some excellent resources disseminated by our wonderful marketing manager, who provides a social round-up every week.

In terms of managing my team, we are incredibly lucky to be a close-knit and team-spirited group. Our Whatsapp game has been upped considerably, and we are using video chats to get together at least once a week to check-in. I’ve had to make our in-office positives board (where we record good feedback and achievements) more of a virtual thing now, but it redoubles my efforts to relay great feedback to the team. I already knew that I worked with a nice group, but being in this difficult situation has truly meant that we have pulled together and every single person has made a demonstrable effort to make other teammates lives easier, the days run more smoothly, and keep the impact on clients as minimal as possible. We may even be communicating with them more than ever now. Clients have also been very helpful in maintaining social distancing – our company policy on this is firm and repeated often to keep us safe. I’ve been dutifully watched from afar when tending to sick animals without their usual handler (sometimes with retrospectively hilarious results). I’ve gotten very good at utilising random objects for safe restraint. Though it can be difficult to safely work around large animals at the best of times, our clients have been kind and thoughtful in their approach to our visits.

In fact, lessons have been learned about how we can still all connect while apart, and I think we will carry those forward into the future normality – whatever that looks like.

Student listening to webinar

Sharing the kindness

On 24 November 2018, over 100 veterinary students from across the country logged into VetKind, the inaugural wellbeing webinar created by the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) and professional development company SkillsTree, with support from the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative (MMI). Whilst at university, 63% of veterinary students suffer from stress1, which is something AVS is always keen to help combat. Therefore, the VetKind webinar was created to teach well-being strategies from an evidence-based perspective. Alongside the webinar, numerous self-reflection tasks and resources have been made available to vet students including further reading and a wellbeing focused playlist!

The morning seminars kicked off with a session led by Jenny Moffett, Managing Director of SkillsTree, titled ‘The Science of Happiness’. According to a poll held during the session, 93% of delegates were aware of the large evidence base linking mindfulness to positive mental health, but only 15% regularly engaged in tried-and-tested mindfulness practices. Jenny presented the subtle differences between subjectiveA and eudaimonicB wellbeing and how – although these may not be in synch at certain periods of our veterinary studies – working towards goals that have meaning to us will help us feel happy, more so than working to feel happy in and of itself. Advice was also given to counteract the ‘I’ll do that when…’ feeling commonly felt amongst students, whether it is through combining tasks or investing time in mindfulness techniques.

With 95% of delegates having experienced imposter syndrome, the second seminar on ‘Perfectionism and Imposter Syndrome’, led by work-based psychologist Jenny Lynden, was one which was certainly relatable to the delegates. The seminar looked at the fact that, combined with genetic and social factors, the construct of perfectionism encompasses excessive concern over making mistakes, high personal standards, doubting the quality of one’s actions and a preference for order and organisation. Time was spent discussing the differences between perfectionist striving, and perfectionist concerns, and which features of these help or hinder our professional and personal lives. An anonymous attendee summed up imposter syndrome perfectly, saying ‘I feel like a blobfish in a sea of dolphins’ and the group chat was full of students echoing this!

‘Empathy: friend or foe in veterinary wellbeing’, again delivered by Jenny Moffett, explored whether empathy, despite being good for our patients and clients, is good for veterinary surgeons as professionals? It considered what leads us to feel empathetic distress instead of empathetic compassion? Both positives and negatives were studied in this seminar, as well as the challenges that come alongside the emotional labour of veterinary work.

The final seminar, ‘Ten tips for fostering work-life harmony’ by Ru Clements, Head of People and Performance at Vetled, offered tips such as: practising kindness; pacing yourself; and balancing one’s goals and expectations. A key tip was the importance of giving yourself permission to take a break, to make mistakes or to celebrate your successes. Delegates commented that this was a lightbulb moment, allowing themselves to relax rather than feeling guilty that they weren’t studying.

For the afternoon, delegates took part in small group online exercises, which allowed individuals to work through how they would offer support to an overwhelmed friend on extra-mural studies. Using ideas and strategies learnt earlier in the morning, students discussed the task and put the theory into context.

Adam Young, a fourth year Edinburgh student said he “found the VetKind event to be a really great way to discuss mental health within the veterinary profession. The main thing that stood out for me was the consistent themes raised by students from all the universities, outlining that those taking part were not alone in their thoughts and opinions with regards to completing their degree. The course also touched upon mindfulness activities to be implemented alongside our often busy schedules, allowing students to apply a variety of these methods in their own lives.”

Throughout the event, an overwhelming sense of community and positivity shone through. The anonymity provided by an online setting allowed for engaging question and answer sessions with the speakers as well as discussion amongst students. There was a realisation that there is a supportive network of students who can empathise with the different pressures of veterinary studies, which was a comfort to many.

Recordings of all four seminars are now accessible online for every veterinary student and make sure to keep your eyes peeled for the next VetKind!

Written by Hannah Fitzsimmonds, 4th Year University of Bristol student and Bristol AVS Representative. She can be reached for further discussion via lisa@vetmindmatters.org

VetKind was created by Jenny Moffett (SkillsTree Ltd. Managing Director), Eleanor Robinson and Hannah Fitzsimmonds (AVS UK&Irl) with support from Lizzie Lockett (RCVS CEO) and Lisa Quigley (RCVS MMI Manager)

[A] Subjective wellbeing, is defined as happiness from maximising pleasure and reducing negative effects on oneself [2]

[B] Eudiamonic wellbeing is defined as living in accordance with your true self, putting focus on meaning in life [2]

[1] Bva.co.uk. (2016). BVA/AVS 2016 Survey Results. pg 12. [Online] Available on the BVA website. [Accessed 14 December 2018]

[2] Albuqueque, B. (2016) What is Subjective Well-Being? Understanding and Measuring Subjective Well-Being [Online] Available at: http://positivepsychology.org.uk/subjective-well-being/ [Accessed 17 Jan. 2019].

Data collected during the event through polls with a total of 111 attendees.

Amy Martin

Addressing the emotional impact of veterinary practice

Schwartz Rounds provide a safe, reflective forum for clinical and non-clinical staff to come together and discuss the emotional aspects of their job. Following the success of Schwartz Rounds in the NHS, the Mind Matters Initiative is currently developing a pilot to explore their effectiveness in a veterinary context.

Here, Amy Martin (pictured) writes about how a Schwartz Round helped identify and address themes of guilt and anger among colleagues at her veterinary hospital group.

Amy Martin BSc (Hons) RVN, DipAVN, DipHE CVN NCert(BusDev) MBVNA General Manager.

Amy is a Registered Veterinary Nurse with 12 years management experience. Her passion is the wellbeing of staff, it is her belief that happy staff deliver phenomenal patient care.

Addressing the emotional impact of veterinary practice

Back in 2017 we decided that Schwartz Rounds would be useful for our organisation, a veterinary hospital group of three practices. Schwartz Rounds are a unique forum that enables clinical and non-clinical staff to come together to discuss the emotional and psychological impacts of our work. As an organisation focused on the wellbeing of its staff this seemed like a good fit for us.
This Round, our fifth, was called ‘Bad Endings’ – a title that was sure to inspire a powerful Round, but just how powerful was a surprise to me. The stories were very different but it quickly became apparent during the group discussion that many of us had not reflected on our emotions with regards to euthanasia and death in our patients. Operating as we do in a busy first opinion practice, taking both emergencies and referrals, it can be hard to take any time between cases to examine the emotional impact what we have just witnessed has on us as people.
Themes emerged, such as guilt over calling the right time for euthanasia, anger with the situation and ultimately sadness that we had to let another one go. Deep bonds are formed with our patients over many years. We first see them as babies and let them go as (mostly) as old pets. What also emerged was the bonds we also form with the owners of our patients and when we lose a patient this can often mean saying goodbye to old friends.
All our staff, clinical and non-clinical, have been invited to Rounds and we have had good attendance from all disciplines. It has helped us to see our work from one another’s point of view and has already begun to effect change in our organisation as a ripple from the issues discussed during Rounds.
Facilitating is not an easy job and this time I found myself swept away remembering stories from my own clinical practice and shed tears along with a number of other staff members. The great thing about this is that I didn’t feel awkward, I felt as though I was among friends. Hopefully showing my vulnerability has helped to indicate that no matter what your position these feelings are normal, can and should be discussed and acknowledged.
We have noticed during other Rounds, in our short history of running them, that euthanasia is a topic which has been revisited many times and we have a feeling this will continue in future Rounds. It will be important to keep exploring this to enable us to continue to be compassionate caregivers. The support and encouragement from The Point of Care Foundation has been invaluable as we embark on being the first veterinary practice to offer Rounds to its staff.

Amy Martin, August 2018

 

What are Schwartz Rounds?

Schwartz Rounds are a safe, confidential, voluntary, reflective forum for all staff, both clinical and non-clinical to come together to discuss the emotional and social aspects of their jobs. Rounds follow a standard model determining how they should be run, ensuring that they can be replicated across different settings. They normally take place once a month, for an hour at a time, usually at lunch time with food provided. The basic format of a Round is that a panel of three or four staff members from different disciplines present stories of personal experiences, based on a topic or case. After the stories have been told, two trained facilitators open the discussion to the audience, inviting audience members to reflect on the stories and their own experiences. Rounds are purely reflective, and the intention is that outcomes or solutions are not discussed.

The Rounds are licensed by The Point of Care Foundation who provide assistance and training in embedding Rounds with organisational practice.

For more information on Schwartz Rounds contact schwartz@pointofcarefoundation.org.uk

Sun rising over fields

Sunrise

Stuart Reid, Mind Matters Initiative Chair

There is something wonderful about watching both sunrises and sunsets. Nature at its best; beautiful, colourful, unique, peaceful and, above all, phenomena that occur on a daily basis.

It is no surprise to me that websites offering mental wellbeing support and coaching often feature gems of nature, particularly those connecting us to a bigger peaceful world and something beyond ourselves.

I am writing this first blog as Chair of the Mind Matters Initiative having just completed a visit to a veterinary school in Australia.  As always, the time and date difference in dealing with emails from other parts of the world was a challenge. What date and time here, what date and time there? And with being many hours ahead of life at home, it put me in mind of the question a child might ask: “So if you are in the future; what’s it like?”

To be honest, as a kid I always struggled with the seasonal moving of the clocks – how did the sky/sun move? – and equally with the concept of time zones. And while the world may be debating the utility of the former, for me the issue of people living in different time zones came to be rather comforting. I remember standing in a superstore in Scotland watching, on a huge bank of LED televisions, the arrival of New Year over Sydney Harbour Bridge, some 11 hours ahead – fanfares, singing, cheering and amazing fireworks. “Wow,” thought I, “in 11 hours we get to do the same.” (Albeit without the pyrotechnics or the sky-arching bridge …those folks in the future were certainly having a good time.)

As a consequence, my response to the question from the child in the time zone behind me has always been: “Yep, all good – tomorrow is okay.”  It was years later that I came across further evidence: a permanently fixed notice in a bar I once frequented, proudly proclaiming “Free Beer Tomorrow”. Optimism that is recharged daily.

So, whilst I know that there will be challenges and that some days are hard or very hard, the idea of tomorrow being a new day that continually refreshes, that is always new and unique, is one that I carry with me. Enjoy the good days; and for the not so good ones, tomorrow is a new day.

My mother was the eternal optimist and, for all that life threw at her, she lived and died mostly happy. And although she insisted she never led anything – something I might dispute – she had the key attribute of leadership: instilling in others, in this case her kids, that tomorrow could always be better and bigger than today. And that the most important leadership of all was internal – that somewhere deep inside we each have the ability to lead ourselves into tomorrow, with the sun setting on the old and perpetually rising to the new.

Hannah Fitzsimmonds

Success comes from failure

Written by Hannah May Fitzsimmonds (pictured left)

Hannah May Fitzsimmonds is a third-year veterinary student and Senior Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) representative at the University of Bristol. She has an interest in both small and farm animals, with a goal of working in a mixed practice. Through her role on the AVS welfare committee she has become passionate about helping students feel supported and excited about their future careers. She spends her spare time at the gym or spoiling her whippet with long walks!

A new initiative, created by the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS) Senior Vice-President Eleanor Robertson, was to develop the ‘CV of Failures’ talk; a project being piloted at Liverpool, Edinburgh and Bristol veterinary schools this year with the aim to roll it out to the remaining vet schools during the next academic year.

What is a ‘CV of Failures’ talk you ask? Read on to find out what happened at Bristol vet school…

On 23 of April around 40 Bristol vet students gathered in the student bar to take part in a question-led talk by speakers Catherine Oxtoby, from the Veterinary Defence Society, and Dr Mickey Tivers, a senior lecturer in small animal surgery. With the theme of reducing stigma around ‘failure’ in the veterinary profession, discussions were had around dealing with mistakes, the difference between negligence and misconduct and suggestions on how to cope with the emotional aftermath of making mistakes.

For example, Mickey did not get accepted into vet school initially, something that at the time was upsetting, frustrating and often deemed as a ‘failure’. However, he has gone on to become one of Bristol’s most inspiring clinicians, reassuring us that it is normal for things not to go to plan and with the right support we can still achieve great things.

Mixed in with the more serious conversation were anecdotal stories from our speakers, alongside other Bristol clinicians who joined us on the evening, about some of their less routine days as vets.

With 63% of vet students suffering from stress at university[1], any project that promotes discussion about wellbeing is welcomed. In this event Catherine and Mickey did a wonderful job of reassuring us that our academic, personal and professional lives won’t always go to plan but there is plenty of support out there, whether it be professional guidance from companies or chatting with friends.

Catherine said of the evening: “I think that the concept of a CV of Failures and providing a psychological safe space to ask questions about the things that really worry us as vets is an inspired idea. I was very happy to share my own experiences and it felt like a really open and honest, but very down to earth, discussion about some of the tougher aspects of vet practice.”

Event feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with attendees appreciating the informal, relaxed feel to the evening, which enabled lots of questions and discussion. AVS aims to run CV of Failures events at each university next term with each university rep tailoring the template to best suit their students. At Bristol we hope to include the local Young Vet Network at our next event, and involve more clinicians to broaden the experience shared.

Catherine beautifully summarises the event with a take home message of ‘You’re a vet – you’re going to get bitten, kicked and complained at once or twice – and you’re also going to make a mistake or two. It goes with the job but it doesn’t make you a bad vet; it just means you’re human.’

Mind Matters, who kindly provided lovely merchandise for the event, have many resources accessible to students and professionals alike, so do remember if you want to talk to someone either about professional or personal struggles look around the website for more information

[1] Bva.co.uk. (2016). BVA/AVS 2016 Survey Results. pg 12. [online] Available on the BVA website. [Accessed 4 May 2018]

Louise Freeman

Me and #AndMe

Louise Freeman, Vice-Chair of the Doctors’ Support Network

The Doctors’ Support Network (DSN) is a peer support network established in 1996 by and for doctors and medical students with mental health issues. At that time, there was almost no specialist mental health support for affected professionals and a widespread belief that a diagnosis of, for example, bipolar affective disorder, would automatically exclude a doctor from practice (not now the case!).

As the Vice-Chair of DSN, I first came into contact with the RCVS regarding the cross-professional ‘Medical Minds Matter’ conference at Maudsley Learning in 2015, hosted by the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative.

Medical Minds Matter brought together veterinary surgeons, doctors, pharmacists and dentists to look at common factors in addressing the raised incidence (compared to the general public) of mental health problems in the healthcare professions. The good news, by the way, is that health professionals do very well with appropriate support and have better-than-average mental health outcomes. I agreed to give a talk about DSN and was then asked whether I could think of anyone who would be prepared to talk about their own experience of being a healthcare professional with a mental health problem. The team organising the event were struggling to find anyone who was willing to speak openly. I could think of someone – me. So, I also gave a talk about my own experience.

On my way home, while waiting for a train, I suddenly thought that if we could persuade even a few senior, currently well, health professionals to openly talk about having had a mental health problem, this would be a powerful stimulus to change our current harmful culture of stigma and shame.

I felt that although the professional bodies in healthcare now exhort practitioners to seek help early if they feel unwell, one is left with the impression that successful seniors have never had a mental health problem and if one does admit to an issue, it is career suicide.

To illustrate this, in 2003, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists published a ground-breaking article in the British Medical Journal about his own experience of recurrent depression. As we were still talking about this article in 2015, that in itself shows that not many more senior doctors had talked openly about their own mental health since then… I also thought that if a group of professionals almost literally stood up together, then that would be both easier to do and more powerful as an anti-stigma message, hence #AndMe as the name of the campaign.

After the conference, I persuaded Lizzie Lockett, Mind Matters Director, that a joint initiative to challenge mental health stigma in this way would be great although, we both thought that this might be an uphill battle. DSN and RCVS agreed that we had to be very cautious on our role models’ behalf in order to avoid any risk to the professional’s personal or professional wellbeing resulting from them taking part in the campaign.

A year later, four (slightly nervous) senior role models assembled at the launch of the #AndMe campaign at the House of Commons: David Bartram – vet and RCVS Council member, Angelika Luehrs – consultant psychiatrist and DSN chair, Jonathan Richardson – consultant psychiatrist and medical director of a Care Quality Commission graded outstanding mental health trust and me. Kevan Jones MP introduced us with a fantastic talk about his own experience of depression and we were off.

We achieved professional press coverage in the campaign launch and have since had almost entirely positive feedback in response to our sharing of senior role model health stories mainly via social media. So far, there is a steady stream of brave volunteers to potentially make a positive difference to how all health professionals view their own mental health. I had not done anything like this campaign before and have been amazed by the response to our wonderful volunteers’ real life narratives.

In essence, #AndMe seems to be achieving its initial aim of reducing mental health stigma in health professionals by showing that a mental ill-health history does not preclude achieving career success at the highest level. Stories can really change the world.

#AndMe only works because of our fantastic volunteers who are willing to share their mental health stories. If you would like to join the campaign, please contact me on vicechair@dsn.org.uk to have an initial chat.

To read our #AndMe stories, visit the campaign page on either the DNS or the Mind Matters websites, and follow our hashtag on Twitter.

Erin and Lucy

Glasgow Vet School Wellbeing Campaign

Lucy Irvine (right) & Erin Thomson (left), Co-Presidents, Glasgow University Veterinary Medical Association, 2016-2017

In February this year, the students of the University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine ran a new wellbeing campaign called ‘Feel Good February’. The aim was to encourage the staff and students of our vet school community to have a more positive feeling around campus.

We wanted to encourage everyone to be more open about how they were feeling by talking to their friends a little more honestly. How many times a day do you answer the question “How you doing?” with “Yeah, I’m fine thanks!” or “I’m good, you?” and are you actually okay, or is that just an automatic response?

The phrase “How you doing?” has become more of a greeting than a genuine question and, as a recent article published in the Veterinary Times reported, one we hear more than 10 times a day. Our idea was that if you could try to answer at least one of these times honestly, then it might help to take a little weight off your shoulders – after all, a problem shared is a problem halved!

We also want to encourage anyone who is struggling with their mental health to feel able to tell someone, be it a friend, family member, one of our Peer Supporters or a member of staff, and to recognise that the first step towards getting help needs to come from them. To help communicate these messages, we are using the hashtags #howyoudoing? and #Utakecareofyou.

We really wanted this campaign to be a whole student body effort, co-ordinated by us as Co-Presidents of our vet student society (GUVMA), but with input from as many representatives on our committee as possible. A special ‘thank you’ to our Peer Supporters and our Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) Chapter, who both rose to the occasion and ran various events throughout the month!

Survey

Prior to the start of our campaign, we sent out a survey asking questions such as:

  • Do you regularly feel stressed at vet school?
  • Do you think it’s normal to be stressed during a veterinary degree?
  • Have you felt able to share your stresses or anxiety with a friend?
  • What do you do to relieve stress at vet school?
  • What encouraging message would you give to your fellow students who might be having a difficult time with stress/anxiety?

We received 314 responses from both vet students and vet bioscience students, which really opened our eyes to how things are at Glasgow. Some answers were shocking but there also were lots of lovely messages of support – we decided to use these throughout the month and so ‘Motivation Mondays’ were born.

Motivation Mondays

Each week we sent an email out first thing on Monday morning with a different message in each one. During the first week we focused on speaking out if you’re struggling, and shared messages from the student body along this theme.

Week two focused on using sport and exercise as a way to relieve stress and we encouraged anyone who hadn’t tried it to give running or the gym a go, especially with our Free Feel Good Fitness Pass! We are privileged to call Laura Muir, final-year student and Double European Indoor Champion over 1500m and 3000m, our classmate here at Glasgow, and she said:

“Running during my vet studies has been such a huge help in coping with the stresses of keeping up with notes and studying for exams. Running allows you to think about things, clear your mind and you feel so much better afterwards, both mentally and physically. I find that exercising, despite taking some time out for it, makes me much more productive with my studies and I think I have performed better in my exams because I have taken part in sport. It also means you can have that extra piece of chocolate, too!”

Week three focused on a current final-year student who wanted to share her story with the earlier years, passing on advice on what helped her when she was struggling with mental illness earlier in her vet school career and letting them know that no matter how bad things seem, you can get through it.

For our fourth and final Motivation Monday we collated our favourite motivational messages received through the survey to round off the month on a high, and created a document to point anyone who is in need of help in the right direction, including where to go and what services are available to them.

Our other activities included:

  • Cup of Tea Tuesdays, where free cups of tea/coffee and the opportunity for a chat were sponsored by a different student-led organisation each week
  • Throwback Thursdays, organised by SAVMA and Peer Support, each week hosting a lunchtime talk with a different Glasgow Vet School clinician or lecturer telling us stories of their own vet school experience and the road which led them to Glasgow, including any struggles they faced along the way
  • The Feel Good 5k Run which, despite soggy weather, had a great turnout and everyone really enjoyed themselves!
  • The Feel Good February Fitness Pass – where the Garscube Sports Centre kindly offered two weeks’ free access to their gym and sports facilities, ran gym induction sessions and a one-off boxing-based ‘Feel Good Fighting Fit’ class, which was a great stress reliever!
  • Peer Support pulled out all the stops hosting a Finding Dory Movie Night on campus, complete with popcorn and other movie treats, a De-Stress not Distress seminar and Massage Your Worries Away head and neck massages
  • Our GUVMA Sports Reps organised a Feel Good February Dodgeball Tournament, which got most of our vet sports teams involved, as well as teams from all years and some staff too! What better stress relief is there? Well done to Men’s Rugby who came out on top!
  • Freebie Friday was a huge success, with all of the first round of freebies gone within minutes! Vetlife, BVA, the Mind Matters Initiative, Vets4Pets and Burns Pet Nutrition Ltd all very kindly sent us bags and items to include in them. In addition, the Feel Good February logo, hand-drawn by our GUVMA Treasurer, Alison, was printed onto pens and t-shirts which, thanks to our wonderful sponsors, we were able to give out free to all participants of our Feel Good 5k and on our last Motivation Monday.

Media stars

During the month, STV Glasgow came out to interview view us about the campaign and the ways in which we are trying to tackle student wellbeing at Glasgow. Professor Ian Ramsay was also interviewed about the profession as a whole, and the issues we are facing, mentioning a need to focus on prevention at the level of the student.

To round off the month, we put together a video that summarises some of the statistics from our survey and the events that we ran throughout the month, as well as some of the motivational messages from our students.

The future…

We hope that the initiative will become an annual event and Glasgow can continue to Feel Good in February, bringing staff and students in our community closer and reducing the stigma of talking about stress and anxiety at vet school: it’s okay not to be okay!

The University staff were a huge support for us while we were running this campaign and without them it wouldn’t have been possible.

Also, thank you so much to our sponsors and supporters, without whom we couldn’t have run the month: GUVMA, our Peer Support Group, SAVMA, The University of Glasgow School of Veterinary Medicine, Vets4Pets & Companion Care, the Association of Veterinary Students (AVS), BVA, SPVS, MediVet, DMS Plus Ltd, Burns Pet Nutrition Ltd, Vetlife, the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative and Tunnocks.

Helen Sanderson with a dog

Supporting others; supporting yourself

Helen Sanderson, former VPMA President and MMI Taskforce member.

Helen is the Business Development Manager for Vets4Pets, supporting 20 practices. She tells us what she learned at the recent Mental Health for Managers course

Each of us either knows someone, or is supporting someone in our work environment, who is struggling with a mental health issue. Whether the workplace is small or large, a mental health issue not only affects the individual, it can have an impact on the whole team. This is why we at the Veterinary Practice Management Association (VPMA) felt that giving training and tools to managers to help them to recognise and understand mental health was so important.

So, we were delighted to team up with the Mind Matters Initiative to offer something bespoke for veterinary managers. The course has been developed following feedback from a range of managers, and runs over a full day.

I attended the first one, back in February in Swindon, and I have to say it was well worth my time. We started by learning to understand the drivers of wellbeing and these aren’t what you would imagine, for instance ‘sleep’ and ‘recovery time’ are two of them…do we ever ask our colleagues “are you getting enough sleep?”, I don’t think I ever have done.

Life does bring stress and some of it is good and can help performance, but this can easily slip over the curve into distress if the relevant support mechanisms are not in place. Recognising stress was the next part of the discussion, and we all considered what different types might look like and how they could be categorised under the headings of Physical, Emotional and Behavioural, which helped us to recognise what form this might take might in our teams. We ran through a useful stress management tool to help us understand how we could deal with it and support colleagues.

This was then followed by a discussion about how to recognise suicidal thoughts. We used a scenario to run a group discussion on how we would deal with someone we thought was in danger and help us understand when to call for help.

Maintaining your own wellbeing and that of your team is just as importing as recognising illness and we learnt about the five-a-day concept of wellbeing, which is important for yourself and your team. Mental hygiene is rarely taught, so this was an important tool that we all took away.

We finished off the day by discussing how we support our colleagues, either back into work following a break, or on a day-to-day basis. We discussed the six attributes of compassion, ie motivation, sensitivity, sympathy, distress tolerance, empathy and being non-judgemental. We also considered how to run a ‘back to work’ interview, guided by a great set of questions to give some structure to this important conversation around how best to support colleagues returning after a break due to mental ill-health.

As a manager it highlighted to me that we need to not only look after our colleagues’ mental wellbeing but we also need to be aware of our own so we are in a good place to support them. The course gave me the knowledge to recognise potential issues and support my colleagues to succeed, and also offered signposts to useful resources that can be accessed locally or through the veterinary profession. If you do one thing for your team, I urge you to attend one of these days!

This one-day course is being run for us by Connecting with People right across the UK during 2017. To find a venue near you, and to register, please visit our Eventbrite page.

 

Nick Stuart

Why I started the SPVS/MMI Wellbeing Awards

Nick Stuart, Senior Vice-President, Society of Practising Veterinary Surgeons
MMI Taskforce member

As the SPVS representative on the Mind Matters Taskforce, I was aware of the discussions within the profession about mental ill-health and suicide. I was also party to discussions about some excellent initiatives to tackle both mental ill-health and the stigma that surrounds it.

However, as SPVS President and as a practice owner, I was also aware of the good work that many practices are doing to look after the wellbeing of their staff. I was concerned that the emphasis on mental illness might paint too gloomy a picture of modern UK veterinary practice. I knew in my own practice, Vale Vets, how important it was for staff to communicate well and to support each other, and the value of social and networking events. I wanted to raise awareness of mental wellbeing and the role that this can play in job satisfaction, with the knock-on effects of reducing staff turnover and increasing profitability.

I wanted the awards to recognise those practices with management systems and initiatives that motivate and engage their staff and who can demonstrate their commitment to being a better place to work. At the same time, by encouraging those practices to tell us about the initiatives in their practices, I wanted to create a resource of good practice that we could share with other owners and managers. At the Veterinary Practice Management Asscoation/SPVS Congress at Celtic Manor, South Wales in January, the award winners will share their stories within the Mind Matters lecture stream. We will also feature the winners in the March edition of Practice Life and will encourage journalists attending Congress to write about them. We will feature the winners on the SPVS website.

I am really pleased by how many practices have entered the awards this year, the first year and I know we will build on this for 2017.

Neil Smith presentation

Mind Matters presents in Sweden

Neil Smith, Mind Matters Initiative Chair

The organisers of the European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine – Companion Animals (ECVIM-CA) kindly invited MMI to present at their annual conference in Gothenburg in September.

This conference is aimed at veterinarians throughout Europe who are either studying for diplomas in a range of veterinary internal medicine disciplines, or have already achieved them. It was therefore great that the organisers introduced the ‘non-core’ subject of mental health and wellbeing into their programme.

Talking to delegates during the conference it was clear that they were aware of mental health issues in the veterinary profession, and were very interested in hearing about the RCVS -led initiative. It is clearly a subject that is considered important by the profession in many countries.

My talk was better attended than I expected, competing against a range of fascinating clinical streams and being towards the end of the meeting. It was well received, and there were a range of interesting and relevant questions at the end. There were also a number of people who came and talked to me privately afterwards.

Following my presentation the conference organisers had organised Tim Sweeney to run some mindfulness sessions. Tim is a mental health nurse who specialises in mindfulness, and his practical introduction to it was very positively met.

Gothenburg is a fascinating and interesting city, and the conference was very well organised, with plenty of networking opportunities and excellent CPD. We have already received an indication that mental health will be on the agenda at the 2017 conference, in Malta, so it’s fantastic to see the topic being given some prominence.