October 20th, 2023

Menopause Awareness and Mental Health in Veterinary Practice: A Candid Conversation

Today, as part of our Menopause Awareness Day celebrations, we are thrilled to host a thought-provoking discussion on the significant topic of menopause and its effects on mental health. Our special guest is Melissa Donald, a distinguished Glasgow Vet School graduate with over 25 years of experience in first opinion practice. She has held numerous vital roles in the veterinary community, including the Veterinary Non-Executive Director on the board of the Red Tractor Farm Assurance Scheme, Trustee of the Scottish SPCA, and President of the Scottish branch of the British Veterinary Association.

Before we delve into this enlightening conversation, let's address a fundamental question: Why did Melissa choose to participate in our Menopause Awareness Day celebrations this year? Melissa emphasizes that while awareness about menopause has indeed grown over the past decade, it's crucial to keep the dialogue alive. The goal is to foster collaboration, discover best practices, and support those experiencing menopausal symptoms and their immediate circles. By doing so, we aim to de-stigmatize menopause, presenting it not as an illness but as a natural part of aging.

Why is it essential for veterinary professionals to raise awareness and get involved? Melissa underlines the significance of awareness in the context of veterinary professionals. The field stands to lose many experienced staff members, including veterinarians and nurses, during critical points in their careers. These professionals offer mentorship to less experienced colleagues, possess substantial earning potential, and play a vital role in a workforce facing numerous challenges. By supporting these individuals to remain in the profession, we can ensure the field retains their expertise.

In recent years, there has been a substantial increase in discussing menopause in the veterinary sphere. The first podcast on VETChat about menopause, for example, was initiated two years ago, indicating an enhanced focus on the topic. Menopause's broad relevance—either directly experiencing it or supporting someone who is—has fueled this positive shift in the veterinary community's discourse.

Now, let's delve into the personal experiences and insights shared by Melissa on menopause:

Melissa's Personal Journey Through Menopause:

Melissa reflects on her initial lack of awareness about menopause's wide range of symptoms. She knew about night sweats but was unprepared for the constant 24/7 sweats, leg pain, brain fog, and anxiety. This incomplete understanding, coupled with her personal reluctance to use hormone replacement therapy (HRT) due to media scare stories, led to challenges. Ultimately, these challenges resulted in her leaving clinical practice. It was only with the benefit of hindsight and increased awareness that she recognized what she had been experiencing.

The Physical and Emotional Symptoms:

Melissa acknowledges the reality of mood swings and the impact of brain fog. These mood swings affect both personal and professional relationships. The brain fog often leads to fears of cognitive decline, including concerns about dementia and Alzheimer's. Anxiety also plays a significant role, with people experiencing panic attacks that may go unrecognized at first. This mix of symptoms can have profound effects on a person's identity, both in their personal and professional life. Additionally, depression can become a reality for some, leading to further challenges in maintaining relationships.

Supportive Workplace Culture:

Melissa highlights the importance of open communication in the workplace. Her practice, a more relaxed environment ten to eleven years ago, fostered a culture of open dialogue. Providing time and space for colleagues to discuss their experiences is crucial. This open approach helped her and others manage their menopausal symptoms more effectively. As workplace pressures increase, it's essential to preserve time for such discussions and maintain a supportive culture.

Encouraging Constructive Conversations:

For veterinary professionals wanting to initiate discussions on menopause and mental health, Melissa suggests considering the workplace culture. Additionally, she emphasizes the importance of personal, proactive communication. If you notice changes in a colleague's behavior, ask if they're okay and ensure they understand that it's acceptable not to be okay. Offering simple gestures like going for a walk or a cup of tea can go a long way. Listening actively and providing people with time to respond are key elements in facilitating these conversations. Melissa also recommends incorporating moments of silence, as it can be helpful in giving people time to open up.

Positive Changes in Practice:

Simple workplace adaptations can lead to significant improvements in supporting those experiencing menopause. Initiatives such as providing fans on desks, accessible showers, and sufficient scrub supplies for quick changes can make a considerable difference. Creating gaps in schedules to allow individuals to catch their breath or assist their colleagues is invaluable. Supporting new graduates with ample time and resources has become a standard practice, and Melissa urges that similar support be extended to experienced staff.

Personal Lifestyle Adjustments:

Making lifestyle changes is essential. A balanced diet, reduced intake of refined foods and alcohol, and regular exercise can contribute to better overall health. However, recognizing that not every individual will experience relief through these changes is crucial. Individuals should listen to their bodies, prioritize self-care, and seek medical advice when necessary.

Looking Ahead:

In the future, Melissa envisions veterinary workplaces free of toxicity, judgment, and sniggering regarding menopause and related conditions. Creating workplaces where every individual, regardless of their specific needs, can thrive professionally is a primary goal. The hope is that these changes in workplace culture will enable all team members to enjoy their careers and stay in the profession for longer.

A final point of emphasis from Melissa is the importance of ruling out any medical conditions that may present with similar symptoms. Menopause can present with vague and variable signs, but there are other health conditions that should be addressed. Seeking medical advice and potentially finding a more receptive GP is essential if your concerns are not being taken seriously.

For those seeking more information, Melissa recommends watching Davina McCall's TV program "Sex Myths and Menopause" for valuable insights into the topic.

Remember, if you or someone you know is going through menopause, you're not alone, and there is support available. Don't hesitate to seek help and guidance on your menopausal journey.

Let's continue the conversation and work towards a more supportive veterinary community for everyone, regardless of their individual needs.

Menopause and Mental Health: A Conversation for Everyone

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