Following the devastating news of the Germanwings crash last week, the co-pilot’s torn-up sick note and the early implication of mental health issues (later suspected to instead be eyesight-related), I witnessed a shocking flare-up of defence regarding mental health on social media.
My gut reaction was of absolute disgust. Whether said sick note referred to mental illness or not, the co-pilot was not 100% mentally sound, otherwise he would not have deliberately crashed an aeroplane into the Alps, killing 149 innocent people.
An article I read describing the rescue efforts to retain the pieces of the bodies (explosion on impact meant there were no bodies intact) was particularly distressing. And yet people preached online, directly referring to the plane crash, that people with clinical depression should be able to hold such jobs. I’m not advocating denying sufferers of severe mental health problems the right to work – but perhaps not in a job that could result in this sort of sickening situation. Can we have some context please?
While a vet may not have it in his or her power to destroy innocent lives to such an extent as pilots, how does this translate? Vets have access to dangerous drugs that could have drastic consequences if used wrongly due to mental instability, and perhaps provide a more accessible option of suicide than the non-medical general public. They also carry responsibility during surgery or other procedures with the potential to act inappropriately with implications on the lives of animals in their care.
You wouldn’t necessarily get on a plane if you were told the pilot had severe clinical depression, so would you leave your dog requiring general anaesthesia with a vet who is?
I think where the confusion has occurred is that word that gets thrown around too easily regarding mental health: “stigma”.
There is a certain stigma regarding mental health, but instead of ranting about discrimination due to mental health, a step forward would be acceptance.
One of the major factors in suicide within the veterinary profession is vets themselves not admitting they need help. In order to prevent professionals (in any sector) slipping through the net and putting on a brave face with unexpected devastating consequences, we need them to accept that they are unwell or stressed in order to take a step towards gaining help to get back on track.
To do this in a veterinary context, we need to remove the fear of being prevented from practising. The words “fitness to practice”, even within vet school, send a ripple of fear through one’s skin. I’m aware of students who have deliberately concealed medical conditions from the faculty through fear of being thrown out. I can only imagine this is carried through to qualified vets, frightened of “being struck off”.
It shouldn’t be that way.
The profession as a whole needs to work towards distinguishing clearly between taking a break from practice to get yourself better and being irreversibly banned from practising as a vet. We need to make it “okay” for vets to admit they need help to have any hope of reducing suicide, among other consequences of mental ill-health, within the profession.