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!


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.