Mental health risks and strategies for veterinary teams during the pandemic

2020-3-25 iStock-1209622904 Roxanne - Mental health risks - blog.jpg

Both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health provide online resources for emergency responders and others facing traumatic incident stress. While these resources focus on more acute situations, much of the information applies to veterinary teams working during the pandemic, such as feeling:

  • Burnout, extreme exhaustion, or overwhelmed
  • Primary and secondary traumatic stress (individual experiences as well as exposure to the worries and traumas of others)

Physical and behavioral symptoms

Common physiological responses to these stressors include:

  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Symptoms of shock

Common emotional responses include:

  • Sadness
  • Frustration
  • Irritability
  • Feeling like a failure or that nothing you do will help

Over time, pandemic-related pressures may lead to stress disorder symptoms such as:

  • Excessive worry or extreme vigilance
  • Racing heart
  • Being easily startled
  • Nightmares

In a paper published March 6, 2020, in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the authors measured the immediate psychological responses to the COVID-19 epidemic in China. Based on survey data from 1,210 respondents in 194 cities in China, the following percentages of respondents reported moderate to severe levels of:

  • 8% psychological impact
  • 5% depressive symptoms
  • 8% anxiety symptoms
  • 1% stress

As more communities order mass quarantines, a letter to the editor of Psychiatric Research says to expect a substantial increase in anxiety.  

Staffing considerations

In a World Health Organization (WHO) report released March 12, 2020, on the mental health and psychosocial considerations of COVID-19, WHO cautions healthcare leaders as follows: “Keeping all staff protected from chronic stress and poor mental health during this response means that they will have a better capacity to fulfil their roles. Be sure to keep in mind that the current situation will not go away overnight and you should focus on longer-term occupational capacity rather than repeated short-term crisis responses.”

This includes:

  • Providing regular, accurate updates to staff
  • Rotating team members between higher-stress and lower-stress functions
  • Setting up a buddy system so that each person has another person monitoring their mental health

Unique pressures of veterinary medicine

Erin Allen, LSW, a social worker with the Argus Institute at Colorado State University’s (CSU) veterinary teaching hospital, says, “Veterinary team members have a unique role. They care for and advocate for animal patients as well as support for clients. There is a sense of honor in this role, being an ‘essential’ member.”

Amid current events, Allen explains that it’s natural to feel anxiety, fear, anger, loss of control, and worries about exposing family members—since most veterinary work cannot be done in total isolation. Yet, veterinary teams cannot physically comfort each other or clients in euthanasia or critical care scenarios, and those who can work from home probably feel disconnected and left out. Many go-to strategies for team bonding and strength remain out of reach due to pandemic protocols.

Allen adds, “Veterinary professionals have the same fears as their human medical counterparts. This dedication level of those in the veterinary field is not often celebrated on the broad social spectrum though, seemingly more likely to go unrecognized within the media outlets. This can lead to a perceived lack of appreciation from the general public, a lack of recognition of their dedication and personal risks to stay available to their patients and clients.”

Can do!

And still, veterinary teams may find ways to feel more motivated and united in the face of these unprecedented challenges. “We’ve seen this perspective in the CSU [teaching hospital]–a strong, positive ‘can do’ attitude in the face of fear,” Allen says.

It’s important, Allen explains, to debrief actively about cases or personal challenges throughout the workday. Sometimes people need to vent or express frustration or anger. In these situations, Allen recommends a three-step process:

  1. Express the emotion.
  2. Evaluate it for what can and cannot be controlled.
  3. Let it go.

How do you let it go? Allen offers these ideas:

Breathe! Done deeply and correctly, active breathing practice decreases stress, increases calmness, stimulates the lymphatic system, lowers blood pressure, and releases endorphins.

Take mental breaks outside. Check with your team and supervisor first, but step outside for a minute when you can.

Laugh. Plan regular giggle breaks with silly videos or memes.

Listen/talk it out. Some people need to process out loud this incredibly weird experience we’re sharing. Talk if you need to talk. Listen to those who need to be heard.

Identify personal triggers. Let each team member share things that bother them in stressful situations. Better to have these conversations before they are needed. Allen says, “It never helps to have that come out sideways. That requires a whole lot more cleanup!”

Use key phrases to alert the team to how you’re feeling. “Guys, I’m feeling __________. I need a break. Does that work for you?” Allen says, “It’s important that the team ask this of one another and that they won’t feel judged if they need time to reset. Talk about it as a staff first.”

Photo credit: © iStock/George Peters

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