Mental health in the veterinary industry

how to deal with the emotional paradox and making mistakes

9 February 2022 5 min read


*Disclaimer – this interview with Danny Chambers is UK based, however the valuable information below is still relevant for the Australia/New Zealand market. ANZ based resources are linked at the end of the article.

Danny works for Equicall covering equine out of hours in the Winchester region. He sits on the Council of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, founded the Veterinary Voices UK support group, and is a trustee of the mental health charity Vetlife. Danny has campaigned on various animal welfare and mental health issues for many years.

His experience, accolades, involvement with Vetlife and in UK politics demonstrates his commitment to enhancing and improving the lives of vets and citizens.

Episode 6 takes us through his experiences and how vets can navigate their mental health issues, lean on Vetlife for support and answer questions like – my colleague is in need of help, how can I address this? What can I do about making mistakes – how can I not feel bad or guilty when an animal’s life is in my hands?


Vetlife’s mission is to provide support to members of the UK veterinary community and their families who have emotional, health or financial concerns, whilst seeking ways to prevent such situations in the future.

Danny outlines that Vetlife’s Helpline is for everyone in the veterinary community – vets, vet nurses, non-clinical staff and students.  Whatever life throws at you, Vetlife will support you. Their phone line or email is 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and they offer free independent, confidential support.

Why it’s better to seek out help

It can be daunting to reach out to a stranger or can feel like it takes effort. Simply you may feel like it won’t make a difference, it’s private emotions or you have a general hesitation, however Danny reminds us that Vetlife’s volunteers are fully trained so they understand the pressures and stresses. It’s also completely anonymous and confidential. Sometimes it pays to speak to an objective person too, as well as friends, colleagues or family.

“You can feel low or lonely, which is problematic as you may be working many hours and not get time to socialize depending on the situation with the pandemic rules and regulations. Or you’ve just had a really bad day or feeling like you’re at crisis point, severally depressed. But there is someone on the other end of that line at Vetlife, who can help you. You can also get urgent referral and financial support too for people who are feeling overburdened.”

Vetlife Financial Support is there for those who’ve run into financial difficulties, usually because of a major change of some kind, such as a health problem or the breakdown of a relationship. Vetlife will look at your circumstances to understand your financial issues better and will help you to plan a way forward.  Although Vetlife Financial Support is currently only able to veterinary surgeons and their dependants resident in the UK, do contact them if you are a veterinary nurse or student because they may be able to refer you to another charity.

The emotional and critical paradox

Danny rightly highlights how it feels for a vet to go through daily stresses:

“You’ve got to deal with the emotions of the pet owner as well as treating the pet. Another stress is that there’s no NHS for animals, and the vet has to charge for the treatment of the animal- some people can’t afford that so you end up euthanizing animals that maybe could’ve been treated. Some owners get angry naturally and can accuse the clinic and vet of being money-grabbing – it can really hurt. Added to that are other stresses such as being overworked in the time of a pandemic, and you have no time to yourself, lack the basics such as sleep and exercise; and you maybe feel isolated, living away from family and friends etc. It’s all a vicious cycle and can be very overwhelming mentally and physically.”

He explains that the emotional paradox means that by nature, you’re in this field, just as doctors and nurses are because it is in your nature to care deeply, to have that empathy. But the risk is that you can become too deeply involved, each time you can have the same emotions as an owner if you euthanise an animal. When that happens several times a day, it can be hard to manage and very emotionally draining.

Finding balance and how to manage mistakes

Danny’s advice on finding the right balance is to compartmentalize. 

“You need to be caring and empathetic enough to ensure that you do a good job, recognize the suffering of the owner and the animal, reflect that back to them, but when you go home, compartmentalize, and don’t spend the whole evening mulling over it.”

Additionally, we recognise that for some jobs, such as in an office or retail, making a mistake can be easily amended or rectified. Being a vet, making a mistake can feel catastrophic. Keyword being feel here. It’s easy to compare and criticise yourself too much.

A big part of overcoming that as Danny suggests is through self-reflection and communication.

“A big part of evidence-based medicine and improvements is improving yourself actually as a clinician. Learning from your mistakes and other people’s mistakes too. If I make a mistake, the best thing I can do is let everyone else know. It is rough self-reflecting like that and tough to admit you’ve made mistakes, especially feeling guilty or it’s embarrassing, but we do our best and it makes a difference being transparent, accountable and sharing things to prevent further mistakes.”

Ultimately vets do the best they can and at the end of the day, only humans with so much capacity to be of service.

Creating time and resource when there’s no time and resource

We address the frustration and scepticism on advice that centres around finding time and prioritising your health. In a way, of course you would love the pleasure of saying no to that extra consult or taking lunch when and as you please with extra-long breaks – but the reality of a pandemic, global vet shortage and huge demand almost feels like that’s impossible.

According to Danny, you can address this by looking at infrastructure and recognising the subtle difference between pressure and stress.

“Pressure can help you perform, it’s like if you’re going to play some sport or race, there’s that adrenaline rush and joyful feeling. In a clinical setting, if an emergency comes in, everyone knows what they’re doing and you know you have to step up to the plate to save a life. But stress is when there’s too much pressure or the right infrastructure and clinical support isn’t there to help you function as a professional and human being.”

In our interview with Kay Ritchie, a recruiter in the veterinary industry, she speaks about this infrastructure.

Creating time and resource means isn’t just your responsibility. It’s everyone’s and part of key leadership and management.  Danny says:

“There’s normally a system or an organisation setting you up where you can or cannot deliver the care and services that are necessary. Finding the right team and clinic to work for is important. There are clinics that exist to support you in every way possible. If there’s an emergency or lack of resources, the right team will pull together to address it, and you really feel like you’re solving it together and looking after each other. You also feel like you’ve done a really good job. You shouldn’t be in a situation where you’re leaving each day after 8pm and overworked – that is not your fault.”

Elle, The Positive Vet nurse, supports this sentiment and advocates for speaking out and communicating to your managers on what works and doesn’t work, as well as standing up for yourself.

There are many practices that have figured out workable and flexible hours so that vets get the hours, pay and treatment they deserve.

Part of that support system is professionally and personally. On the personal side, Vetlife is there to support you every step of the way from student, to graduate to highly experienced professionals. And you don’t have to be at a crisis point. It could be if you’re feeling lonely or exhausted – nothing is too small to matter.

In this episode, Danny has so much invaluable advice, new ways of working and thinking to challenge the status quo. Tune in to hear more from his wealth of experience.