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How veterinary team members can find a mental health provider

  • April 18, 2018 2:03 PM EDT

    One of the most common questions I get asked by my veterinary colleagues and friends is “can you tell me how to find a good therapist?”.  I am always so glad when someone asks me this as I firmly believe that every human on this planet can benefit from therapy.  And with rates of psychological distress, depression, and suicide in veterinary professionals that exceed many other professionals or those in the general population, there is no doubt that veterinary care providers probably need therapy more than the average human being.  But when it comes to finding someone to talk to, the task can feel daunting and uncomfortable. 

    Since moving to Calgary a few years ago (and having to discontinue sessions with my previous therapist), I have struggled to continue with consistent therapy.  I have tried (and stopped seeing) at least three therapists during the last three years and continue to work towards finding someone with whom I connect and whose sessions are beneficial for my personal growth and wellbeing.  So, this process is ongoing for me and I am happy to share my thoughts with those of you who are reading this and in search of a therapist.     

    One of the first steps in finding a person to provide mental health support is to understand the different types of mental health providers that are out there.  The who’s who in mental health can be confusing to say the least, but can help to guide you in finding someone, based on what your needs are and what your health benefits cover. 

    A therapist is the general team for a mental health professional who treats individuals by talking (and listening).  When people use the term therapist, they are usually referring to a psychologist, social worker, or counselor.  But technically, anyone can call themselves a therapist (i.e., those of us dealing with clients in veterinary practice feel like a therapist most days!), so it is important to ask each person about their background, training, and credentials. 

    Psychologists, social workers, and counselors are all licensed professionals, meaning they have had some form of training, must demonstrate proficiency in their skills, must adhere to a professional code of ethics, and are required to complete significant continuing education.  A psychologist has earned a master’s or doctoral degree in psychology after their bachelor’s program.  Psychologists are specifically trained to treat patients using psychotherapy (listen and talk therapy) and apply different theories to intervene and promote change.  Psychologists vary in the techniques that they use (e.g., affect regulation, cognitive restructuring, mindfulness, socratic questioning); however, psychologists are not permitted to dispense medication for psychiatric conditions.  A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who is trained in management of mental health concerns and mood disorders with psychotropic medication.  Counselors can include those proficient in marriage or family counseling and have usually also completed masters level training in psychotherapy.        

    Social workers have usually obtained a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work and are also trained in psychotherapy.  One of the benefits of seeing a social worker is that they receive more training in some of the social and societal factors that affect individuals and are usually more attuned to individuals in their environment.  They might even be trained in veterinary social work, a program based out of the University of Tennessee that trains social workers and other mental health professionals in subjects unique to veterinary medicine including: compassion fatigue and conflict management; animal-assisted interventions; the link between human and animal violence; and animal-related grief and bereavement.  

    The second step when choosing a therapist is to consider what sort of coverage your health care plan provides; sometimes only certain professionals are covered.  Likewise, some provincial and state veterinary medical associations provide additional coverage outside of private healthcare plans.  For example, before switching to an Employee Assistance Program, the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association used to cover the cost of four sessions with a psychologist.  This was a confidential perk provided to all members, but the catch was that the session had to be with a psychologist, not another mental health provider. 

    Finally, the last step in choosing a mental health provider is to find someone you like and are comfortable with.  This is the most personal of all the points and something that each person must figure out for themselves.  When I am choosing a mental health provider, it is important for me to feel connected with them, that I can confide in them without feeling embarrassed or shameful, and that they understand the demands of the profession and can appreciate what it feels like to be a single-almost-forty-year-old female professional.  Also, because I already have so many amazing friends and family members who I can lean on for listening and support, I want a mental health provider who will tell me like it is, push me out of my comfort zone, and help me to better myself, rather than just providing a listening ear.

    In the end, we all have different needs, wants, likes, and dislikes when it comes to therapy.  Listen to your gut and know that you might have to try out several mental health providers before you find the one who suits you best.  But ultimately this will be one of the best investments you make for your mental health and wellbeing.   

    Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher with 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