Earlier this month, the iconic All Creatures Great and Small made a triumphant return to our television screens. Over 3.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the debut episode of the remake which follows the colourful working life of Yorkshire vet James Herriot, making it Channel Five’s most popular show in terms of viewing figures for over 5 years. In the midst of the unease and widespread anxiety the COVID pandemic has fomented, the programme is a soothing hot water bottle antidote of a show; a welcome opportunity for escapism.
Last week, the Daily Mail published an interview with the adult children of the real life James Herriot, Alf Wight, who penned the classic series of books the television series is based on. Aside from discussion of the family’s involvement in the production process of the remake, they spoke quite candidly about their father’s struggles with his mental health – something I personally was not aware of. While for the most part their childhood was as idyllic as one might imagine, there were darker times for the family and periods where the author contemplated suicide. What’s more, the real life Siegried Farnon, Donald Sinclair, sadly actually took his own life not long after Wight passed away. Alf Wight’s daughter Rosie felt very much that for her father, it was ‘cathartic getting his feelings out on paper’. Writing seemed to function as an outlet for the real James Herriot; a means to recentre himself and cope with the challenges of life.
For me this was profoundly upsetting to read. James Herriot is a national treasure; an emblem of the veterinary profession. His escapades are what many, particularly those of the older generation, think of when they imagine the work of a vet. James Herriot is a sort of sacred figure and to find out that he and another of the vets depicted were afflicted in this way was quite shocking
We vets are a pretty rare species: just one in every 3300 people in the UK, is a veterinary surgeon. To put that into context, one in every 482 people is a solicitor, and one in 233 is a medical doctor. So although the vast majority of people may not personally know a vet, the profession is very much in the public consciousness. This is in part because of our national obsession with pets and the plethora of veterinary programmes on television that All Creatures Great and Small is just one of; the Supervet, the Yorkshire Vet and the Vet on The Hill being three of the most popular currently. These shows allow viewers to vicariously experience the day to day work of a vet and therefore most feel they have a good idea of what a vet’s work involves.
Whenever I tell a stranger I have just met what I do for a living, people are eager to here about my job; just this morning in the barbers, as soon as I mentioned that I was a vet, the conversation becomes much more animated. ‘You must love your job?’ I am usually asked. And my reply usually starts ‘yes, there are times I really enjoy it, but…’
Because in some ways, the profession is not in a great place at the moment. Veterinary courses remain heavily oversubscribed, so there is no shortage of intake, but the profession’s workforce is haemorrhaging ; vets are leaving the workforce at a greater rate than they can be replaced. But watching all these vet programs with cute animals and charming owners, it must be hard for those outside of the profession to fathom why this is the case.
Encouraging advances have been made in terms of awareness of mental health problems in wider society in recent times, and it is becoming clear that those who work within our care-giving profession are especially afflicted by such problems, with the suicide rate for vets being 3-4 times the national average. I don’t know many vets who haven’t cried at work at some point. I would consider myself a calm and relatively resilient person, but there are many times I have felt truly overwhelmed. Compassion fatigue and burnout are endemic in the profession.
The reasons for this are complex. Client expectations continue to grow. Nowadays, unlike in Herriot’s time, many pet owners anticipate a human standard of care, and vets need to have command of a huge range of knowledge and techniques. We are GPs, but GPs who over the course of one day might also need to be surgeons, radiographers, radiologists, obstetricians, dermatologists and cardiologists. And while junior doctors have many years more of structured learning and examinations after their five or six year undergraduate course, some unlucky new vets will receive little to no support on qualifying; they are more or less expected to hit the ground running immediately. Perhaps terrifyingly, they are never examined again.
Vets are high-achieving and driven people, and undergo lengthy training to qualify, but having to deal with any problem that might walk through the door is highly challenging especially as our patients are mute and we have to rely on the often unreliable but well-meaning narration of their owner’s (the dog rushed in as an emergency with its guts hanging out that turned out to have an erection springs to mind).
A thorough examination of the reasons vets decide they no longer want to do their job is beyond the scope of this blog. Overall I think that the work of the vet creates a perfect storm for mental health issues to be whipped up. And easy access to euthanasia drugs does not help.
On the whole, I personally can’t bear to watch vet programmes. They are the last thing I want to sit down with a cup of tea and watch after a long tiring day. But I can see why these shows appeal to the animal loving public, particularly when it comes to charming depictions of the work of James Herriot in a simpler time, long ago.
I certainly do not begrudge anyone sharing in the joys of our job, but I do think it would be helpful to shine a bit more light on the more sobering aspects of being a vet. To share in our lows as well as giddy highs. I think that’s why the Herriot family interview really struck a chord with me as it did just that.