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Mental Health First Aid Training for Veterinary Care Providers

  • November 29, 2017 1:29 PM EST

    Just a few months ago, I had a client tell me after the unexpected death of her beloved cat that she no longer had a reason to live.  She had euthanized her other cat just a few weeks before and her mother with whom she was very close passed away only months before that.  My heart nearly stopped when I heard her say that she was not sure that she could go on.  While I did not know her well (her cat came to me via the emergency service), I could see that she was tremendously distressed and feeling hopeless and alone.  It is situations involving clients with suicidal thoughts, co-workers having a panic attack, or colleagues struggling with addiction that led me to pursue mental health first aid training. 

    While traditional first aid teaches people about the signs and symptoms of a heart attack, as well as how to help someone who has suffered a cardiopulmonary arrest, mental health first aid (MHFA) trains people to recognize the signs and symptoms of a mental health crisis, as well as the steps to provide support and enlist professional help. 

    The Mental Health Commission of Canada has been offering MHFA training in Canada since 2010, approximately four years after the program was introduced in Alberta in 2006.  It originated in Australia, but has since spread to 23 countries worldwide. Since 2007, more than 250,000 Canadians have been trained in MHFA.  Among those Canadians, 75 veterinary care providers have been trained since the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association (ABVMA) launched an initiative in 2015 with the goal to train one person in each Alberta veterinary hospital in mental health first aid.

    It is thanks to this program that I was able to take MHFA training in 2015 and was subsequently able to have a conversation with my client (mentioned above) about her thoughts of suicide.      

    The statistics are clear: 1 in 5 people will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lifetime.  Additionally, 1 in 10 veterinarians report experiencing serious psychological distress and 1 in 3 veterinarians report they have had a previous depressive episode.  Most concernedly, 17% of veterinarians have had suicidal thoughts and 1% have attempted suicide.  I think the numbers speak for themselves: veterinary hospitals will benefit from having someone trained to provide MHFA. 

    The Basic MHFA Canada course teaches attendees how to follow the ALGEE acronym when attending to a potential mental health crisis.  The letters stand for: assessing the risk of suicide/harm, listening non-judgmentally, giving reassurance, encouraging professional support, and enlisting other supports.  The two-day course is structured similarly to a traditional first aid program in that it offers the information in a clear and organized algorithm with outlined steps to follow along the way. 

    The ABVMA is continuing to work toward its goal to train veterinarians, technicians, and other veterinary hospital staff in basic MHFA with courses being offered in Edmonton (November 30 – Dec 1, 2017) and Calgary (March 8 – 9, 2018).  If you are an ABVMA member and would like to register, please click here.  Alternatively, if you would like to attend a MHFA program and you live in another part of Canada, you can visit: to register for a course near you. 

    As veterinary care professionals, we are all trained in veterinary CPR to save our patients’ lives. I believe that MFHA training saves human lives. 

    Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher who has an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals.  She facilitates wellness workshops, boot camps, and retreats for veterinarians, technicians, students, and other veterinary care providers.  To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here.  More information can be found at