mental health

Veterinary Surgeon, survivor


This post is by a member of the veterinary community, who wishes to remain anonymous.

Some identifying details have been changed.




My sister was sassy. She was pretty. She had confidence and was sure of herself and she was bright. She had a bit of an attitude: the week before one birthday she’d got me a birthday card, but we’d fallen out and instead of handing it to me she ripped it up and threw it at me. She was spirited. She was also very clever. I ‘d be working my arse off and she’d be asleep and she’d get better grades. I’d be like, ‘How?’

We were brought up in Africa and it was one of the last days at school – one of those days when you don’t actually do anything. I was watching telly and my sister was in the bathroom. Then she came in, asking what time it was. She went back into the bathroom. After a while, I thought, ‘She’s taking a long time.’

I went to see.  Where I come from, you have a little window over the door – just a little window, so I climbed in. I found her. I just didn’t know what to do. I tried to feel a pulse, but she was already gone. Her lips were blue. Her tongue was blue. I couldn’t do anything.

I was fifteen. My sister was about to turn fourteen. She didn’t leave any note at all. It was a contributing factor that my Dad was abusive and we were all petrified of him. I remember him telling us to stand against a wall and we knew he was going to hit us. I remember my sister wetting herself. We were always so scared of what would happen next.

The day before, I came home early and saw my dad beating my mum. Mum told me not to tell my sister anything. That morning I told her. I shouldn’t have done.

I’ve been on medication for the last ten years. I need my antidepressants to function.  The suicide rate in veterinary is so high that it’s insane. One of my colleagues tried to kill herself this year. She lived a distance away so management had said that she could live above the vets….. and again, I found her. Again, she was in the bathroom. Again, the worst thing is that there’s nothing you can do. 

What have you seen when you’re nineteen? What have you seen when you’re thirteen? I’ve heard people say they thought it must have been me, because my sister was so sure of herself.

The day my sister died, people started turning up at our house and we ran out of milk and I remember that I was sent out to buy milk. That shouldn’t have happened. That was so wrong. It still makes me angry now.

Back home, you have open flame funerals with timber. It’s a tropical country, so my sister’s was the very next day. The body came back in a metal container and someone gave me some flowers to put on her but people kept spraying air freshener. I hated that.

There is a stigma attached to suicide. We literally moved from the area we lived in. A distance like moving from East London to West. There were no pictures of my sister at home; it was like she never happened. I carried on with a new school and then when I was eighteen, I gave Mum the ultimatum that it was him (my Dad) or me. She chose me.

We arrived in England and I went though university. Half-way through, my Dad died. He was hit by a truck. I went to the funeral, but I want him to still be alive every day just to feel the pain. I want to skin him alive every day but I can’t, because he is dead. I’m so bitter. He looked at lot older and he looked pathetic. I thought: was this who we were scared of?

My Dad didn’t let me get my ears pierced. My sister didn’t get to enjoy that opportunity. To be in hoops or dangly ear-rings; something so small, but so big a deal.

I finished my GCSEs on the same day we flew out. I finished at lunch-time and we had a flight in the evening. I got Bs and Cs; I could have done a lot better. I just went through the motions because you had to: those years were a blur.

Britain was a culture shock. With my Dad, we weren’t allowed to do a lot. He was controlling in that way. Suddenly now, opportunities just opened up. I took every one of them. It’s weird but I still think that my sister would have done so much better. I don’t know, but that’s what I think. I’ve taken the role of Mum’s husband in a way: I still support her now.

During Covid, the company I worked for had Zoom meetings. The first agenda was always the finances. Never the health of the staff; they always opened the meeting with finances.

I know of three people who’ve attempted to kill themselves and one vet was successful.   I knew that she was cutting her wrists, so I went and told one of the vets.  She called the Director and told him.  They never did anything.  People don’t talk about suicide until after someone does ‘something silly.’  

I said to one of the Directors, when are we going to talk about this? He didn’t look at me. He was playing with his cufflinks. His fancy cufflinks. That’s when I handed my notice in. I thought, if we go all you won’t be able to have cufflinks like that.

I’m a locum now. The vet industry is imploding at the minute: its all about speed. People tell you we’re going to be quick. I think, No: I’m going to do my best for this patient. You see people typing their notes up in their time off, but that’s not a break. Not a legal break.

People don’t want to talk about how they’re feeling. It’s a thick-book culture and they don’t seem to think about anything else. How many times do you talk about your day when you’re so tired that you can’t function anymore? People just go and have a cry on their own and then sleep. I asked an area manager if he had mental health training. He said yes; one hour-long session. One hour-long session about what? What could you cover in one hour-long session?

It’s not that they don’t want you to get yourself sorted, but they also want you to get back to work. I am planning to leave and I am going to get a low paid job. Deliveries or something. Not veterinary related at all. I’ve learned to notice changes in my mental health. I’ve learned how to identify when what I’m doing isn’t right for me.

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