A free, mental-health resource for veterinary staff

Sometimes all you need is a sympathetic ear, leant by someone who knows exactly what you’re going through.

The Veterinary mental health initiative (VHMI) has you covered. It’s the first and only program in US to specifically address the mental health crisis in the veterinary profession, by providing free, multi-level emotional support to veterinarians and their clinical staff, facilitated by expert clinicians, via Zoom.

The VMHI grew out of a three-way Zoom call in the fall of 2020 between Kathy Gervais, DVM, a veterinarian at the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to animals; a grief-stricken client who’d just lost a dog to injuries sustained in a car accident; and clinical psychologist Katie Lawlor, PhD.

Gervais had done everything she could to save the dog’s life, but his injuries were too extensive, so she contacted Lawlor, who was working as a therapist at a Bay-area woman’s clinic, hoping she could provide her client with grief therapy. But Lawlor told NEWStat professional ethics prevented her from treating a friend’s client: “So I said, ‘Why don’t we discuss this because I’d like to support your client in any way I can.’”

That client turned out to be Bay-area philanthropist Emily Scott, who had a history of giving generously to animal welfare organizations.

And although they’d arranged the Zoom call to talk about Scott’s grief, they wound up talking about Gervais’. “Kathy kept saying over and over, ‘I’m so sorry, I did everything I could,’” Lawlor recalled.

The Zoom call turned into an impromptu educational seminar on the mental health struggles faced by veterinarians—from high levels of clinical depression and anxiety to suicidal ideation. What Gervais had to say made a huge impression on both Lawlor and Scott: “When Emily heard Kathy’s story, she said ‘We absolutely have to do something about this.’”

Then and there, Scott offered to fund a free mental health program for veterinarians—if Lawlor would administer it. In that moment, VMHI was born.

Things moved quickly from there.

VHMI started enrolling veterinarians in a ten-week pilot program in January of 2021, a support group of ten veterinarians led by an experience PhD-level facilitator. It proved an unequivocal success and by the end of last year, they’d served 250 veterinarians. At the beginning of 2022, the program was also made available to veterinary techs.

“Our goal for the end of 2022, to have designated groups for veterinarians, veterinary techs, and veterinary support staff,” Lawlor said. The reasoning behind the segregated groups: “Vets want to talk to other vets, techs want to talk to other techs, and support staff want to talk to other support staff.” 

The key word is "talk."

Lawlor emphasized that these are peer support groups and not actual therapy sessions: While all group facilitators are experienced, doctorate-level cliniciansm they're legally prohibited from practicing therapy across state lines. They’re there to offer safety should a distressing topic come up, and to offer evidence-based coping skills drawn from different therapeutic modalities.  

All the facilitators are paid and have day jobs as therapists in hospitals, clinics, and veterinary schools. “They’re already working with veterinary students and professors,” Lawlor said, which is a huge plus when it comes to facilitating discussion among veterinary professionals: “They have a solid understanding of veterinary medicine context.” 

VMHI caps the professional peer support groups at 10 people, and so far they’ve run a total of 15 groups. Recently they’ve expanded their offerings to include a support group for younger veterinarians with less than five years’ experience, and they’re getting ready to launch a group for more experienced vets with 15 to 20 plus years on the job. 

Razyeeh Mazaheri, DVM, a 2021 veterinary school graduate who started got her first job as an associate in a busy clinic last June, is currently enrolled in the new support group for younger veterinarians and loves it. At this point, she’s something of a VMHI veteran: this is the  third VMHI peer support group She’s participated in.

She told NEWStat she joined her first VMHI support group last summer because she was experiencing a lot of anxiety about her new job, and bouts of insomnia; she wanted to know if that was something that other people experienced when they were just starting their career: “I wanted to see if that was normal, new-grad anxiety versus ‘Maybe this field isn’t for me.’”

The experience was life-changing.

Talking to other vets and hearing their struggles and challenges helped her realize that she still loved veterinary medicine, but that the hospital where she worked wasn’t a good fit. Inspired by her peers, she switched to shelter medicine, which she thinks will prove much better for her emotional health in the long run.

She said that hearing other doctor’s stories in the various groups was very helpful: “I got some of that older vet advice and insight, and now I’m honing it down.” She said it’s very therapeutic to talk to another person who’s going through the same thing you’re going through: “‘Oh, you’re a new doctor and you don’t remember every single thing from vet school, either? And you beat yourself up about it, too?’” she said with a laugh.

Plus, she added, it’s very healing to have someone who’s been through the same thing you have tell you it’s normal, and you should be more patient with yourself.

And it’s all free because it’s all funded: Scott provided the seed money, and VHMI recently received a large grant from the Zoetis Foundation. Lawlor called it “an extraordinarily generous” donation. 

What are the most popular topics? 

How to recognize symptoms of clinical depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation--both in themselves and in their colleagues. Communication. Compassion fatigue and burnout, panic attacks. Procrastination and perfectionism. Guilt. Loved ones and family. Traumatic situations in the workplace. Imposter syndrome. “That’s a big one,” Lawlor said.

Lawlor gave an example of something she might hear in a typical session: “’At 10:30 I have to give a grave diagnosis to an animal that I've known for a decade. At 11:00 I'm a humane euthanasia also for a family that I love working with and it’s going to be extremely sad because I love this animal. And my 11:30 is a brand new puppy,’” Lawlor said. “’And I've got to make that transition between walking from exam room A to exam room B, I have to wipe my tears and then be joyful for this puppy. And it really takes an extreme toll.’”  

VMHI is based in San Francisco but their programs are open to veterinary staff nationwide in the US and Canada. And so far it’s been entirely word of mouth—Lawlor says all the funding’s gone into hiring expert facilitators and developing support materials. “We’re a grass roots organization: all substance, no sparkle.”

It’s all virtual—Lawlor said they couldn’t do it otherwise. Plus, the virtual aspect makes it easier for veterinary staff to get the support they need, and on a timeline that works for them. She said she has  one vet who calls in from  the supply closet at their hospital, others from their cars during their commutes. “Come as you are, wear your pjs, we’re not formal,” Lawlor said. “We’ll take you just as you are.” 

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