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Stress Awareness Month: Spotting the signs and management

In our previous blog, we talked about the concept of stress, and recognised it as a normal human response to demands placed upon us. This week will focus on spotting signs of stress and what we can do to manage it.  

Stress can often affect us both from a physical and emotional perspective. In response to stress, the human body can react in a number of ways (e.g. physical and emotional), particularly in relation to the hormones produced. While we may notice some signs, often many will not be widely recognisable. The mental health charity Mind have a useful section which focuses on signs and symptoms of stress.

Managing stress as individuals 

To help manage your own stress, it’s good to know what might trigger your stress response, how you experience it and what healthy coping mechanisms you can utilise to support yourself through practising self-care. You can explore this through Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England’s interactive online resource MHFA Stress Container

Managing stress in the workplace 

Stress in the workplace can be particularly challenging given that we spend more than half our life in work, and it is the most common cause of long-term sickness absence in the workplace (CIPD, 2023). Whilst we should try to maintain and practice good self-care, employers have a large role to play as they are required by law as part of their ‘duty of care’ to take certain steps to address and manage stress in the workplace. In particular under the:  

  • Health and Safety at Work Act 1974; and​
  • Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.  

The HSE (Health and Safety Executive) Management Standards also identify six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates. These are: 

  1. demands
  2. control
  3. support
  4. relationships
  5. role
  6. change 

If you’re experiencing stress in the workplace, it’s important to speak to someone, for example your manager. If you talk to them as soon as possible, it will give them the chance to help and stop the situation getting worse. There are times when you might not feel comfortable speaking to your manager, in which case you could speak with: 

  • A colleague or your trade union representative 
  • Your HR department 
  • Your Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) 
  • ACAS 
  • Vetlife 

If you’re a manager or leader, take a look at some of these useful resources: 

  • The CIPD have produced a detailed guide on managing stress in the workplace: Guidance on managing stress at work;  and
  • the Health and Safety Executive have produced a Stress Talking Toolkit which you might find useful to help start conversations to identify causes of stress for your workers and identify possible solutions.   
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Stress Awareness Month: Let’s talk about stress

April is Stress Awareness Month – and provides us with a good opportunity to discuss a topic that impacts many of us. Throughout April, we will be sharing a range of information and resources to raise awareness of stress, reduce stigma and dispel myths, to help support veterinary professions to thrive in their roles. This week we will shed light on what is meant by stress and burnout – two terms which are used interchangeably.  

What do we mean by stress? 

Throughout our lives at home and at work, we can all experience different types of stress, which the World Health Organization (WHO) notes ‘is a natural human response that prompts us to address challenges and threats in our lives’. In responding to stress, the human body releases a number of hormones to help us cope or act. Interested in learning more about the science behind stress? Find out what happens to your body when you’re stressed

Whilst there are often negative connotations associated with stress, the stress curve diagram from MindWell illustrates that some forms of stress can actually be good for us. In fact, optimal stress (also called ‘eustress’) can help us to be motivated and perform at our best. Particularly where we have the ability to rally the necessary resources and support, to cope with demands placed upon us (e.g. to get a task done by a deadline, or intently focus on something). However when we experience excessive demands (whether they be physical, financial, moral or emotional), and we are not able to deploy resources to respond to them, stress can adversely affect our behaviour, relationships, productivity and health.  

A prolonged state of stress where the body continuously activates relevant systems to respond to demands can lead to emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, often referred to as ‘burnout’, common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and physical illness such as heart disease and high blood pressure. The recent Burnout Report from Mental Health UK (2024, pp.9) identified the prevalence in the UK with ‘9 in 10 adults experienced high or extreme stress in the past year’. Find out more, including recommendations to prevent burnout in the Mental Health UK The Burnout Report.  

It’s important to remember that every individual is different and their experience of pressures and demands, the resources and support they have to cope, and what can tip them from optimal to negative stress, will vary (as shown in the Stress Curve Diagram).  

At our fourth MMI Research Symposium in 2023, Dr Rebecca Smith, a lecturer in Veterinary Professional Development at Harper and Keele Veterinary School, discussed the top 10 stressors identified by vets and vet nurses, and how these stressors varied with experience. The report and video are now available to view. 

We’ll be sharing more resources over the next few weeks, including more information on how to spot the signs of stress, how we can manage stress, and what we can do to support ourselves and others. 

Join us for #UniMentalHealthDay2024: Let’s get talking about student mental health

Organised by Student Minds and the University Mental Health Advisory Network (UMHAN), #UniMentalHealthDay takes place on Thursday 14 March 2024. 

At the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and as part of our Mind Matters Initiative (MMI), we are committed to supporting all members of the veterinary community to thrive in their roles and to get the support they need. Students are the future of the veterinary professions, so working to help protect and support their mental health is a key part of what we do. 

“We are pleased to have undertaken a range of student focused activity recently, including; fully funding a MHFA Champion course for the Association of Veterinary Students, delivering university presentations and mental health training sessions, and supporting researchers at Leeds Beckett University to undertake a deep dive into mental health education for student veterinary nurses through our Sarah Brown Mental Health Research grant.” – Angharad Belcher, Director of the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative 

Student Mental Health Challenges  

Did you know that one in four students have a diagnosed mental health condition, and one in three students have poor mental wellbeing? (Student Minds, 2023) 

Moving away from home for the first time, undertaking exams and placements, navigating the cost-of-living crisis, and adapting to changing personal and professional relationships, can cause challenges for students.  

“#UniMentalHealthDay provides a positive platform to highlight the importance of student mental health in enabling students to thrive on their journey, and in particular signposting appropriate support that’s available, whether they need it right now or in the future. Within this blog, we have collated a range of useful information and support that’s available to students, including how to have a conversation about mental health, seeking help and supporting others.” – Dr Linda Prescott-Clements, RCVS Director of Education 

How to know when you may need support? 

It’s important to think about signs that may indicate that your mental wellbeing may be slipping, so that you can take steps to boost it.  Student Minds have a range of useful resources and questions that you might find helpful to ask yourself. 

Seeking Help  

Recent research by Student Minds (2023) found that one in four students would not know where to get mental health support at their university.  

Whilst talking about your mental health may seem daunting at times, there are many sources of free and accessible support out there for students, including services at universities, the NHS, Student Minds, Vetlife, Samaritans and many more. Check out the useful links and support section at the end of this blog. 

“I think being aware of the avenues for support before you feel you need them is paramount for maintaining good mental health at university. No one expects to have poor mental health so, knowing where you can reach out for help beforehand, such as BVNA’s Members Advisory Service, Vetlife, Samaritans, as well as facilities at your university, makes getting support a lot easier.  University is a great opportunity to practise getting a good work-life balance, so take part in self-enriching activities outside of your studies and look after yourself. As veterinary professionals, our work’s purpose is to care for others and, while learning how to take care of yourself is rewarding in its own right, it is also necessary for longevity in your career.” – Bronwyn Bailey SVN, British Veterinary Nursing Association Council (BVNA), & MMI Taskforce Member 

Starting a Conversation & Supporting Others 

If you are not quite sure how to start a conversation around mental health, Student Minds have provided a useful guide and Mind also have accessible resources. 

There is also a wide variety of training available that may support you to help others including the MHFA Champion and MHFA First Aid courses, and Student Minds’ own ‘Look after your Mate’ course.  

Useful Links and Support 

Student Minds have a great downloadable resource pack that you can use to promote #UniMentalHealthDay. You can download the pack by visiting the University Mental Health Day website

If you need help or support right now, there are a range of organisations out there to help you. 

General support: 

  • Contact your Local GP or call NHS 111 (England & Wales), or NHS 24 (Scotland on 08454 242424). 
  • Student Minds is the UK’s national charity for student mental health and since 2009, they have been championing the cause. Their vision: ‘No student should be held back by their mental health’. For more information, visit the Student Minds website. Student Minds also have a range of useful resources for LGBTQ+ students 
  • Student Space, run by Student Minds, also offers an accessible source of help and guidance, which includes what support may be available at your own University. For more information, visit the Student Space website.  
  • MIND have a specific section on student 
  • Vetlife have a bespoke page for students which you can access by visiting their website. You can also call their Helpline for free on 0303 040 2551. 
  • Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year. It provides a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them. You can also call them free on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Shout is a free, confidential, 24/7 text messaging support service for anyone who is struggling to cope. Text Shout to 85258 

University specific support: 

Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 - hand extended to sitting person illustration

Anti-Bullying Week 2023

The theme of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week is ‘Make a noise about bullying’.

Incivility in all its forms, including bullying and harassment, can have a significant impact on working lives, particularly on an individual’s performance, mental health and wellbeing. To support Anti-Bullying week we have provided some useful information and resources below.

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons through its Mind Matters Initiative (MMI) is committed to raising awareness of the impact of Incivility and promoting the importance of dignity and respect at work, through its resources, campaigns and training. Bullying and harassment has no place in education, the workplace or the professions, and by working together we can do more to promote civility and inclusive organisational cultures.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance (2023) defines Bullying as ‘the repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power. Bullying can be physical, verbal or psychological. It can happen face-to-face or online’. 

If you are experiencing or have witnessed bullying in the workplace, there is help and support available. Depending on your circumstances, you might find it helpful to; 

  • Talk informally to a trusted friend or colleague,  
  • Discuss informally with your manager or a member of your HR/People team, 
  • Seek out independent advice and guidance e.g. via Vetlife, Employee Assistance Programme, ACAS or Citizens Advice on how to support yourself or others, 
  • Consider raising a formal concern or complaint through your workplace processes, 
  • Report inappropriate behaviour or cyberbullying on social media sites and forums 

Does your organisation have a bullying and harassment policy? 

It is good practice for all organisations to have clear bullying and harassment policies and procedures in place, that are reviewed regularly, readily available to employees and act on concerns or complaints raised fairly and quickly by an appropriate person. If you don’t know if your organisation has a policy, reach out to your HR/People team to ask. 

Did you know? 

According to a 2021 Mind Matters Initiative wellbeing survey of student and recently graduated veterinary nurses, 96% of respondents agreed that bullying and incivility was a serious problem in the profession. This stark figure highlights how important it is that we work towards developing culturally safe working environments and become more active bystanders to challenge, disrupt and report inappropriate and harmful behaviour, when and wherever it occurs.  The student veterinary nurse wellbeing survey was the first of its kind and you can read the full report at SVN-wellbing-discussion-forum-2021-report.pdf (vetmindmatters.org) 

Useful reads and resources 

There are a range of useful services and resources you can access if you are being bullied, harassed or facing other forms of incivility in the workplace. 

Vetlife is available 24/7 to listen and offer a safe, non-judgemental space for you to explore your options. Call 0303 040 2551

Samaritans – Samaritans is available round the clock, every single day of the year. It provides a safe place for anyone struggling to cope, whoever they are, however they feel, whatever life has done to them. Call 116 123.

BVA Article Why behaviour matters: Civility Saves Lives (bva.co.uk) 

RCVS Knowledge Good practice culture – great job satisfaction – RCVS Knowledge 

The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAD) gives employees and employers free, impartial advice on workplace rights, rules and best practice.   What bullying is – Bullying at work – Acas 

Citizens Advice offers free and confidential advice on various topics If you’re being harassed or bullied at work – Citizens Advice 

Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD) provide a range of useful factsheets Bullying & Harassment at Work | Factsheets | CIPD 

VetLed have some fantastic free resources which have been created in collaboration with Civility Saves Lives. You can download these resources via their website

Dealing with those Winter Blues

Kate Richards – RCVS President 2021-22

In this blog RCVS Senior Vice-President and Chair of the Mind Matters Initiative Dr Kate Richards MRCVS writes about how best to conquer the Winter Blues. 

For some the phrase ‘Winter Blues’ may conjure up memories of Dr Feelgood and The Animals, for others it describes their feelings at this time of year.

It’s important to acknowledge it is perfectly normal to feel a bit down just now with the lack of sunlight, chill and post-festive slump. This combination can leave us low, tired and sapped of energy and motivation.

This year we have another stress due to financial challenges and uncertainty for the year ahead as well as professional pressures arising from pandemic pet purchases, the lingering impact of Covid and the workforce challenges across the sector.

However, there are a variety of things you can do to help yourself, and it is something the Mind Matters Initiative (MMI) is promoting to all members of the veterinary team. Have a look at our Working Through Winter webpage to find out more.  

Sustaining our emotional and mental health enables us to manage what life throws at us, both personally and professionally, and helps prevent anxiety and depression. The work of the MMI extends to veterinary students as it is vital to embed this awareness and knowledge of resources in our undergraduates.

The MMI team visited each of the veterinary schools in Freshers /Welcome Week to talk about the resources available through MMI and answer questions about the project. At the school I visited, I gave the MMI talk on a Sunday afternoon, followed by final years telling the group about the various societies they could join. ‘I wish I’d known about Mind Matters when I was in first year,’ a final year student whispered to me afterwards.

Launching this year are a number of MMI courses and webinars on Sustaining Emotional Health, Psychological Safety and Civility Training and Mental Health First Aid with newly developed sessions on Rural Mental Health First Aid coming soon. You can find out more about the Mind Matters training programme on our dedicated webpage. 

Remember, these resources are available to all the veterinary team, including vet nurses and students. Please have a browse through the resources which include a Neurodiversity Hub, webinars and videos from research symposia.

Over to You

It does not have to be a webinar, a course, a conference or a book, little things can make a big difference. Take one step at a time to keep it manageable for you.

  • Being at a low ebb in winter is perfectly natural and accepting this is helpful.
  • Social interactions help us feel connected and supported.
  • Feel fresh air on your skin, get outside for even a walk around the block, car park, field. I find this really helps me if I can get outside first thing.
  • Keep moving in whatever way feels good for you.
  • If you are worried about finances there are plenty of free resources out there, for example, the Citizens Advice Bureau.
  • Eat what makes you feel good. A healthy balanced diet will increase mood, energy and motivation.
  • Accepting that shift work happens, think about sleep hygiene. Is there more you can do to help a better night’s sleep?
  • Focus on the positive, being grateful and doing something for someone else can be incredibly powerful.

Interested in Mental Health Research?

If so, MMI is now accepting applications for the Sarah Brown Mental Health Research Grants are now open for the fifth year running. The Grant was founded in 2019, in memory of RCVS Council member Sarah Brown who passed away in 2017, and this year we will once more be awarding a £20,000 grant to those who are conducting all important research into veterinary mental health and wellbeing.

Abi Hanson

My Mind Matters Campfire Chats Reflections

When I first joined the RCVS as the Mind Matters Initiative Officer in June 2021, I, like many others found myself thrust into a new job and a new industry in a primarily virtual world.

The pandemic was still rife and finding that all important connection was more important than ever before. People had slowly started going back into workplaces, but everything was still very unpredictable. Everyone still had to be hugely cautious and making any in person connections was somewhat challenging.

That’s why I was delighted when I first heard about the Mind Matters Campfire Chats, which took off in January 2021 as a way of bringing the veterinary community together to speak about important topics that mattered most to them. I was even more excited (if not somewhat nervous as an industry newbie!) to hear that as part of my role I would be heading them up. I would be able to choose the content, the panellists and coordinate the whole of the upcoming series. We have now run a total of four Campfire Chat series and have had nearly 20 chats!

The great thing about the Campfire Chats, is that I can honestly say I have left every single chat feeling more positive than I did when joining the call. All the panellists and attendees have been so open and honest that each and every chat has become a really positive shared experience of learning and growing together.

Mental health has always been something extremely close to my heart, and whilst there are undoubtedly some wellbeing challenges that are more specific to the veterinary professions, mental wellbeing is something that unites us all. No matter who we are, where we’re from, or which sector we work in, we must all learn to look after our mental wellbeing. No wellbeing challenge is unique to one specific person or one specific profession.

This is why we were really eager to have a wide range of voices included in these conversations, from both within and outside of the veterinary world. It is all too easy for us to make assumptions about the thoughts, feelings and opinions of others, which is why it is so important to gain a range of perspectives on a number of different issues.

None of our Campfire Chats are ever recorded as we like to keep them as intimate as possible – people often feel less comfortable opening up if they know they are being recorded. We want the conversations to be authentic – as if we really are all sat round a real campfire having a genuine chat. The information shared is often really useful as we regularly invite experts to come and share their knowledge on a specific topic, but more often than not it’s just as interesting to see how people from different backgrounds perceive things in different ways. Varying human perspectives and experiences are fascinating and often provide value beyond knowledge alone. Learning to view things from others’ perspectives can teach us invaluable lessons.

Over the past year and a half, we have run sessions on a huge variety of topics, some summaries for which can be viewed on our Campfire Chats resource page. No matter what the topic, there are always valuable messages to take away from every chat. Some of my favourite takeaways from our panellists are as follows:

“Make sure you look after yourself and understand that you are more than your job. You are you, and that’s enough.”Overcoming Self-Doubt and Stressing Out

“Comparison is the thief of joy – there is no hierarchy when it comes to creativity so do whatever you want to do for you. Not for anyone else. It’s about the process and doing something that you find meaningful. Keep going until you find something that works for you.”The Joy of Creativity

“Being anxious, fearful, or worried is never a good thing, but it means you care. Caring makes you a bigger part of the solution than those who remain disinterested.”Combatting Climate Change Anxiety

“When we talk about differences amongst individuals, the focus is often on the challenges people face and the specific label which marks them as different. Not only is this degrading, but completely misses the point about how we as humans relate to one another.

If we turn the tables, there are so many positives to be found in difference. For example, those living with a disability are hugely resourceful and fantastic problem solvers because of the challenges they have had to learn to navigate in order to lead their lives.”Celebrating Diversity

“When you feel like you’re lacking confidence and everyone else appears self-assured, remember that everyone is feeling the same inside. Appearing confident and feeling confident are not the same thing.”Navigating Change

Despite being online, there is something distinctly different about the MMI Campfire Chats – they’re not just there to provide information but, as the above quotes show, to appeal to people on a real human level. Having recently moved into the RCVS communications team, I am no longer involved in organising the chats but still attend to take notes to share after the events. I even ended up chairing a couple of the sessions which is something I had never done before! I couldn’t imagine a more welcoming or rewarding environment in which to host an event for the first time. I was initially worried that, as a junior member of staff, I wouldn’t be senior enough to lead, but that’s part of what makes the campfire chats so brilliant – they’re for everyone as human beings, and that comes before any job title or self-imposed idea of status.

To come full circle, the Campfire Chats are all about pausing to share, learn, and grow together. This is something that is all too often forgotten in our busy hectic lives, but something that is essential in forging a collective sense of wellbeing. When we stop and listen for a while, it gives us the space to realise that we are all more similar than we might think. The Campfire Chats have proven that even when we haven’t been able to be together physically, we can always find common ground. Meaningful connection is a fundamental part of being human and speaking authentically about topics which impact each and every one of us, is something that will always unite us.

Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 - hand extended to sitting person illustration

Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 blog series…Let’s Get Connected!

This week (9 – 15 May) marks the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week – an annual opportunity for us all to come together to talk about mental health and to help break down the stigma surrounding it.

The theme for this year’s Awareness Week is loneliness.

Loneliness impacts many of us at one time or another in our lives and is a key driver of poor mental health. It affects millions of people in the UK every year and, according to The Mental Health Foundation’s Pandemic research, levels of loneliness have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

It is easy to confuse being alone with loneliness. You can choose to be alone and be very happy in your own company. You can also be surrounded by lots of people and feel lonely. Loneliness is personal and it is important to understand that people’s experiences will differ. Mental health charity, Mind, describes it as ‘the feeling we get when our need for rewarding social contact and relationships is not met.’

So this Mental Health Awareness Week, we are focussing on the importance of connection and what we can do to help ourselves and others to overcome feelings of loneliness.

As part of this, we’ve been asking our team and people from across the professions about what connection means to them in our ‘Let’s Get Connected’ blog series. We will be adding new entries to this throughout the week so do keep an eye out!

Macauly Gatenby

A student vet nurse’s reflections on the recent wellbeing forum

Macauly Gatenby is a third-year SVN who is serving on the Mind Matters Taskforce as the British Veterinary Nursing Association’s student representative. He has a strong passion for all aspects of mental health and wellbeing and hopes to use this opportunity to support and give a voice to all SVNs and RVNs.

Towards the end of 2021 Mind Matters Initiative held a Student Veterinary Nurses Wellbeing Discussion Forum. MMI has recently published the highlights and key outcomes following this event. Firstly, I wanted to highlight how empowering the Mind Matters Initiative Student Symposium was. I walked away feeling inspired and motivated knowing others were in the same situation and mindset as myself. I strongly recommend to anyone who is able to find the time to attend any of the events hosted by MMI, as you will certainly walk away with a stronger sense of community and obtain fundamental tools to equip you both professionally and personally.

What really resonated with me is the mindset of taking an hour out of your day to celebrate all the small victories. In practice this can be as simple as taking your break on time, something so insignificant in our day that should be celebrated as a big success, and let’s not shy away from our own individual achievements regardless of what they may be. I feel this mindset could and should have a ripple effect throughout our industry.

We are still going through tough times socio-economically. I feel that we need to own the current situation as our new temporary permanent, otherwise we will let the inevitable negativity and burnout consume us, meaning when we do take back control we can pull together to permeate positivity throughout all aspects of our lives. I know, I eye-rolled at that sentence too, but I feel it is important to think like this when experiencing difficulties, especially during an unusual situation such as our shared experience of  the pandemic, otherwise we will be stuck in an endless cycle of negativity which will take a toll beyond our professional lives. And it is important to remind ourselves as students, but also as registered veterinary nurses, that we are extremely valuable and more than competent enough to continue making positive, essential differences in our industry. However, this requires us to make or highlight the necessity of change.

I say this in the most positive way to everyone, including myself, because as a student I feel it is increasingly important not to succumb to self-doubt, because we are more than capable individuals who are the future of the profession. And this is something that I am only beginning to learn myself. By attending this event I have developed such a sense of pride and hopefulness by being surrounded by like-minded and dedicated individuals who have allowed themselves the opportunity to show the compassion and care amongst one another. Sadly we sometimes need reminding of this in our industry.

What was apparent, and made abundantly clear, is that sometimes students face the brunt of many issues, and sometimes we can all be made to feel like spare cogs in the machine, especially whilst juggling all our demands such as working, studying, socialising whilst trying to somehow fit in some level of self-care. However, now more than ever, we should feel the sense of being an important component of the machine, after all, we have the opportunity to absorb and spearhead powerful changes not only in individual practices but across the profession and industry. So I urge all students to take 20 minutes in your day to highlight all your victories and to remember them with pride, because this might just be the reminder of why we chose this profession and why our struggles throughout studying will be worthwhile.

Lacey Pitcher

Square pegs, round holes

We often talk about career routes and every time it brings a smile to my face imagining what younger Lacey would think if she could see me now.

I’d been a good student in school, worked hard and got on well with everyone often driving projects; yet growing up in the Valleys I’d been told “not to aim too high”. Reflecting now fills me with pride and frustration in equal measure. Why should little girls be expected not to dream? To me, dreams were merely plans we had yet to figure out a roadmap for.

I subsequently spent the following years feeling like a square peg in a round hole. Not quite fitting the ideals of what career growth should look like and often feeling there were no seats at the table. What if I were too bold, too curious, too passionate and too ambitious? What if the careers advisors had been right?

The years that followed were full of grit. More rollercoaster than mono-rail. I pinballed around the system via 3 different nursing colleges finally obtaining my precious green uniform and wearing it with pride. I WAS a Registered Veterinary Nurse. Everything I had dreamed of, and yet when I got there I realised that to me I had only scratched the surface. I wanted to experience all corners of the profession and to explore the potentials once again of asking “what if”. I enjoyed meeting and joining new teams, adored teaching and mentoring, the range of clinical settings. The community. Instead of asking for seats at tables, I began to ask why not?

Why can’t RVN’s define their own roadmaps and decide where and how they want to get there? In truth, I realised the option was there all along, but we didn’t talk about squiggly careers. As I began to sit in boardrooms full of brilliant people, I realised they were exactly that. People. Each with their own road maps, some destination undefined. Each measuring success in different ways and that is absolutely ok. Better than ok, it should be championed.

RVNs have such a wealth of transferrable skills that it’s time to delve into how we can use them and utilise them for the better and so, in a career pivot, here I am. Working for the RCVS in a more formal role that young Lacey would never have imagined. In a role that meets my values and marries up my passion of Veterinary medicine and nursing with interest of improving mental wellness and care of the profession that nurtured me as I grew. One that challenges the image of how socio-economic diversity should limit how we approach that glass ceiling and smashes through preconceived ideas of what neurodiversity limits.

I am Lacey Pitcher. I am not a square peg in a round hole.

I am a round peg in a square hole with room to grow. Boundaries undefined. Potential uncapped. Squiggly career and destination unknown. I am proud to say young Lacey would now grin, but I am even more excited to explore the possibilities of what could be if curious minds were nurtured and empowered to drag their own seat to the table. Better still, to be invited as equals. A table where we may ask, why not?

Mental Health Awareness Week 10 - 16 May 2021 - Nature theme graphic

Mental Health Awareness Week Nature Competition 2021: Runners Up

Back in May 2021, MMI launched a photo competition on the theme of the links between the natural world, and our mental health and wellbeing. Retired veterinary surgeon Ralph Slaughter was crowned the winner for his collection of photographs called ‘Why I Am a Gardener’ in which he highlighted some of his proudest horticultural achievements and the impact that gardening has on his physical and mental health.

We received so many fantastic entries and would like to say a huge thank you to everyone who entered and shared their personal nature and wellbeing stories with us. They were truly inspiring, and we are delighted to be sharing some more entries with you. Here are our runners up:

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 (c) University of Warwick, 2006, all rights reserved.
  • 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 (c) University of Warwick, 2006, all rights reserved.
  • 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)

*WEMWBS was developed by the Universities of Warwick, Edinburgh and Leeds in conjunction with NHS Health Scotland.

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 (c) University of Warwick, 2006, all rights reserved (WEMWBS)**. 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.

** WEMWBS was developed by the Universities of Warwick, Edinburgh and Leeds in conjunction with NHS Health Scotland.

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.