Estimated reading time: 5 minutes
In her eight-part podcast, journalist Caroline Winter examines what’s causing the mental health crisis facing veterinarians, and what can be done about it. By Lynne Testoni
The declining mental health of veterinarians has been well-known in veterinary circles for a few years, but as an issue it is only now reaching the mainstream media.
Unsustainable workloads, staff shortages, minimal support (especially for young vets and new graduates) plus a huge increase in demand on veterinarian services has led to what many people are calling a crisis.
And it’s a crisis that needs a wider audience, which is the motive behind the Sick As A Dog podcast, produced and hosted by journalist Caroline Winter. The recently released eight-part series looks at the mental health of veterinary personnel and talks about how the community—and the industry—can tackle the problem.
Funded by Meta’s public interest journalism fund, the podcast launched at the end of March 2023 and has received much acclaim. Winter says that the idea behind the project had been in her head for some time.
“I’ve been a journalist for many years,” she explains. “And I saw the odd story pop up here and there about the declining mental health of vets. And while I kept asking, ‘Why is this happening?’, I couldn’t quite seem to get to the bottom of it all.
“Four years ago, my husband and I got our dog, and it really gave me a new perspective on what it means to own an animal and be a responsible pet owner. I also had a friend whose daughter started studying to be a vet, and our vet—nearing the end of his career—is a really good family friend.
“In the conversations I was having, I realised this problem was far more insidious than what I had thought. And now, after speaking with pet owners and just everyday people, I’ve realised how surprised they are at the issues and how deep-seated they are in the industry.”
The podcast became reality after Winter left the ABC and started working on independent projects. When she heard about the funding that was available from Meta, she realised that it might be the opportunity to tackle the subject, allowing her to travel across the country to interview vets, experts in mental health and, sadly, also the parents of one of the vets featured in the podcast, who took her own life.
She said it was a profoundly moving experience.
“As a journalist, you come across stories every day. I’ve covered all sorts of things from awful fatal car crashes to murders, but this really hit me emotionally. I love animals, but I realised this wasn’t just about being a pet owner, it’s about being someone who cares about wildlife; it’s about someone who works on the land or in agriculture; it’s about our biosecurity and animal welfare.
“And that’s when I realised that what’s happening to our vets, in terms of leaving the industry, in terms of being burnt out and stressed, and getting to a point where their mental health is in rack and ruin, is actually a problem for all of us; it’s not just a problem for the industry.”
One of the most moving stories covered in the podcast is that of Dr Sophie Putland, a talented young vet who took her own life. Winter spoke to Sophie’s parents about what led up to her death and what could be done for other young vets in similar circumstances.
“I’ve been quite humbled actually by the number of emails I’ve had from vets, vet nurses, people who’ve left the industry, just saying thank you for your support,” says Winter. “And thank you for speaking about an issue that we’ve all known about that doesn’t tend to get a lot of airplay.
“Many are private people who don’t like to make waves, but they feel a little empowered that it’s not someone inside the industry speaking up for them, but someone outside. With podcasting, it’s all about who’s your audience. My primary audience was not really vets or the vet community; they were my secondary audience. I knew it would hit the mark there, but my primary audience is us; it’s the community because if I was shocked by what I was hearing, reading and seeing, surely everyone else should be.”
Winter agrees that the mental health of vets is a complex issue with many root causes. There are also many organisations working to find solutions. The podcast looks at some of these in the latter part of the series.
Dr Kristen Steele, senior advocacy officer at the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA), is one of the experts featured in the podcast and says that mental health is a big focus for the AVA. The AVA worked with Winter for a year while she researched subject matter for the podcast.
“We are very thankful for her genuine care and investment in this important area,” says Dr Steele. “We appreciate the sensitivity that Caroline has shown, crucial in our fragile profession.
“The AVA is strongly advocating for veterinary wellbeing to combat mental ill health and also the deeper workforce issues such as remuneration and working conditions, client conflict etc. which contribute to mental ill health,” she says.
“Veterinary wellbeing requires solutions to the problems that are causing mental ill health (PREVENT), to focus on the value of veterinarians (PROMOTE), and to actively address mental ill health within our profession (PROTECT).
“This was determined by extensive independent research sought by the AVA to assist in clarifying the problems and seeking solutions. AVA is highly active in all of these areas.”
Sick As A Dog is available on all major podcast platforms.