‘We all need a variety of tools for our mental wellbeing’
It is well known that many veterinary professionals struggle with their wellbeing and mental health, with upsettingly high rates of depression, anxiety and suicide. Projects like Mind Matters are looking into causes and solutions, but are we as individuals doing enough to look after our own wellbeing during our day-to-day activities? Lyubomirsky states that ‘just like any goal in life, being happy takes effort’. While things clearly need to change in the profession, individuals can also be helped to improve their own wellbeing.
As individuals we are familiar with the concept of looking after our physical health, even when we are well, but sadly our mental health often gets forgotten until we are struggling. We go to the gym, play sport, try to eat well...In short, we have a variety of tools to keep us physically healthy. These tools don’t prevent a physical illness, but they make it less likely, and importantly, they might make it easier to recover if we do become ill.
So why not think about mental health in the same way? If we develop a variety of tools to use to maintain and promote our mental health and wellbeing when we are well, these can then also help us if we become unwell.
At Bristol Veterinary School, we have taken this concept and created a wellbeing theme that includes teaching sessions in all five years of the BVSc course. We wanted to help our students by embedding tools and techniques within the curriculum that would enable them to better maintain and promote their mental health and wellbeing.
The seminars and small group activities build year-on-year and use a ‘Mental Wellbeing Toolbox’. The toolbox includes a variety of resources that focus on evidence-based techniques for maintaining and promoting positive mental wellbeing. It was developed using an iterative approach, involving both searching and reviewing the literature on interventions to improve wellbeing and engaging with student focus groups. In the same way that we use a collection of tools for our physical wellbeing, the toolbox aims to provide students with tools they can use for their mental wellbeing.
An overview of the Mental Wellbeing Toolbox, showing key topics covered
The image above shows an overview of all the topics covered in the Mental Wellbeing Toolbox. The toolbox is based on the idea of a mental wellbeing spectrum, which we all move up and down. This aims to normalise the idea that mental wellbeing is fluid and changeable over time. This spectrum is also used to direct the individual to different wellbeing strategies, depending on their position on the spectrum at any one time. It promotes the idea that even when we are well, there are still things we can do to enhance our wellbeing. We felt it was important to include a variety of techniques, all of which are evidence-based. For example, when discussing ‘Giving to others’ (one of the NHS 5 steps to mental wellbeing), we explain that there is evidence that giving to others can result in greater happiness  and that happiness can be subjectively increased by completing five random acts of kindness.
It is important to note that the Mental Wellbeing Toolbox concept focuses primarily on helping students develop their wellbeing when they are well, and has been reviewed positively by mental health professionals for this purpose. We recognise that the strategies described are unlikely to be sufficient for someone with mental ill-health, and make it clear to students that if they are struggling, they should seek extra help. Specific details of who to contact and resources available are provided in the toolbox and during each teaching session.
Feedback has been collected from students, with positive themes emerging around the content – ‘it really made me think more’; the concept – ‘a good thing to have integrated into the course’; and the delivery – ’I loved the fact we could all discuss together’.
Students particularly liked the interactive nature of the teaching sessions and the evidence-based approach – ‘with the references and the scientific input, it made it sound like it was a real thing’.
Often, our mental health and wellbeing is something that is not taken seriously until we are already struggling. This was clear in comments from some students – for example, ‘I think some people maybe have that idea “oh I’m fine now, I’ll be fine for the rest of my life.”’ We hope to help bring about change by proactively talking about wellbeing when we are well, and highlighting the role of the individual. In addition, having spent several years developing and refining the toolbox and reading the literature, we are keen to share our efforts with the wider veterinary community.
The Mental Wellbeing Toolbox Handbook is freely available online at www.bris.ac.uk/vetscience/media/docs/mental_wellbeing.pdf. The handbook includes details of all topics covered in the Mental Wellbeing Toolbox, including a complete list of references from the literature review. There is a small section on specific resources available at the University of Bristol, but there are similar services available in the other vet schools and more widely. The handbook can be used as a template by others considering putting a similar document together (although we request the University of Bristol be fairly credited in this case). We’d also welcome questions via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) from institutions, organisations or practices interested in taking a similar approach.
- Lyubomirsky S. The How of Happiness. A Practical Guide to Getting the Life You Want. London: Piatkus, 2010
- NHS. 5 steps to mental wellbeing. www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/improve-mental-wellbeing/ (accessed 5 March 2021)
- Post SG. Altruism, happiness, and health: it’s good to be good. Int J Behav Med 2005;12:66–77
- Lyubomirsky S, Sheldon KM, Schkade D. Pursuing happiness: the architecture of sustainable change. Rev Gen Psychol 2005;9:111–31