Partnership at Western College of Veterinary Medicine first of its kind

Small animal surgeon Kathy Linn says veterinarians face unique pressures in their job.

Partnership with University of Regina brings social worker to help veterinarians deal with stress

Social worker Erin Wassen, left, and small animal surgeon Kathy Linn say there are a lot of pressures put on veterinarians. (Eric Anderson/CBC)

Pets hold a special place in many people's families and their hearts. Veterinarians are often the largest animal lovers but deal with the most difficult situations when the critters end up as their patients.

At the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, a unique partnership is helping the doctors who work on man's best friend deal with the stresses of their jobs. The college partnered with the University of Regina to have a trained social worker on site to work with students and staff.

It's the only veterinarian college in Canada that has a social worker on site.

"I think some of the common pieces that come through are the moral stress that people experience in wanting to provide adequate care to the animals that are under their care and also recognizing that there are financial constraints that the human counterpart is going to have to endure, and they are going to have to endure alongside their human clients," social worker Erin Wassen said.

Wassen added that many vets went into the field to heal animals but sometimes much of their job is actually spent having to do euthanasia.

"[Veterinarians] are really smart and really capable and hold themselves to impossibly high standards," Wassen said.

"When you hold yourself to really high standards, and cannot always follow through with what you would like to do for both your clients and your patients, it can be really challenging."

When you hold yourself to really high standards, and cannot always follow through with what you would like to do for both your clients and your patients, it can be really challenging.- Erin Wassen, social worker at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine

​Wassen said these pressures can weigh on a veterinarian. A Center for Disease Control report from 2014 showed 14.4 per cent of males and 19.1 per cent of females who are veterinarians have considered suicide since graduation. This is three times the U.S. national average.

By bringing a social worker into the college, Wassen said they can start teaching mental health strategies before the vets hit the field.

Surgical instructor and small animal surgeon Kathy Linn said many people who get into their field expect to deal with animals, and not necessarily the human factor of the job.

"There are a lot of phases of our job that are kind of 'feely'. People like me, I'm a surgeon, people talk to me in short sentences like 'bone break, you fix,'" she said. "[We] perhaps [are] not always the best people to deal with the feeling side of at least talking about it. So it's good to have someone with an outside perspective."

At the end of the day, even with the difficulties, Linn said she is grateful to work with animals. She remembered a time when she was working a farm with 75 heifers when a pink balloon floated by.

"Every single one of them wanted to lick it. There were 75 heifers leaping and jumping," she said with a laugh. "There are a lot of balloon licking moments in my life actually."


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