Counsellor lends animal workers her ear

Erin Wasson, social worker at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan, consults with a colleague Jan. 6.  |  William DeKay photo

Social worker provides support for veterinarians and livestock owners suffering stress, trauma and burnout

When Erin Wasson visited a Saskatchewan farm recently, she jumped into the thick of things and helped push sheep through the chute for treatment.

“Work needed to get done,” said Wasson, the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s first social worker.

She said a willingness to get her hands dirty is vital when building a rapport with producers.

“In that kind of a circumstance, you kind of demonstrate with your action that you’re useful, you’re not uncomfortable with the herd that you’re dealing with and that you have some base agricultural knowledge that gives you an opening to then provide that additional support,” she said.

“I think that if I hadn’t got in the chute, I don’t know that there would have been the same comfort in having a conversation with me.”

Wasson is part of the Veterinary Social Work Initiative, a partnership between the veterinary college and the University of Regina’s faculty of social work. A first of its kind in Canada, the program provides social work support to the college’s clinical faculty, staff and students as well as animal owners.

She provides one on one counseling and directs people to the appropriate resource.

Wasson has been a registered social worker since 2009. Her previous experience was in crisis intervention, mental health and addictions, youth living high-risk lifestyles, young offenders, medical social work and people with disabilities.

She helped develop the WCVM program in 2014 while completing her master of social work practicum requirements. The college hired her last year.

A broad base of social work experience and a love of animals have made Wasson a good fit for the job.

“Coming into the college, I found that really useful because I have to draw on a lot of different resources and different areas of knowledge in order to do my work here,” she said.

The job can also include helping someone deal with the unexpected death of a pet, counseling an overworked clinician or helping make end-of-life decisions for animals.

The clinic is divided between small and large animals, but Wasson said many of the issues she deals with overlap.

“In the small animal program, I would say my work is primarily managing, say, an animal welfare concern and intervening appropriately there, or providing support around grief and loss,” she said.

“The literature will tell you that people’s relationship with small animals is parallel to that of a horse. I would say that it’s a little different. I would say that a horse operates more as a partner, so I think the loss of an equine partner is tremendously difficult.”

Wasson also visits livestock operations with the college’s veterinarians.

“It’s helpful having me along so they can focus on their veterinarian work, and I can focus on the bio-psychosocial stuff that’s going on within the family,” she said.

One such incident involved a disease investigation and herd loss, where Wasson provided support for the farmers.

“I’m not doing a counseling session out on the farm,” she said.

“Typically what I’m doing is pretty tangible problem solving: solution oriented, solution focused support.”

Conversations with producers can range from the shift in commodity markets to the impact of feed prices caused by drought.

“That’s when you see increases in farm stress and experiences by farmers that are really challenging.”

Wasson said it helps that she doesn’t come from the community she visits because privacy is a priority for many producers.

“When you look at the research around what type of support people want, when they’re managing farm stress, usually what they’re looking for is somebody who isn’t necessarily from their home community,” she said.

It’s also important that she understand agriculture.

“Somebody whose knowledgeable about agriculture, somebody who knows what they mean when they say, ‘I’m worried because I only got one cut of hay.’ ”

The loss of livestock is a business matter, but Wasson said there is also a mental and emotional price tag.

“So when there’s a mass loss, yes there’s insurance and yes there’s financial ramifications for that, but there’s also physical and mental toll that comes from those losses,” she said.

“Largely rural communities have looked after their own and largely there has been a lot of suffering in silence. That’s been the traditional way to manage these types of issues. It gets swept under the rug until there’s a tragedy, until farm stress leads to suicide or dissolving of a marriage or big ruptures in a family relationship.”

The reverberations can have a lasting impact on succession.

“If kids are leaving the farm, then what do you do? Who is going to take over the farm?” she said.

However, attitudes have been changing.

“Farm stress as a tag line or a concept is not new anymore. It’s considered an occupational hazard for individuals working in these industries,” she said.

“One of the things that we know, based on the one-health concept is that if a human is doing well, then their animals are likely to do well and that the environment that they are all living in is likely to also be positively impacted. Much the same way that environment, animal and human beings are impacted by disease, so are they impacted by wellness.”

Wasson said the stress and burnout that veterinarians experience, particularly rural practitioners, is often overlooked.

“When you are in consistent contact with individuals who are distressed and when you are consistently in contact with animals that are distressed, there’s a certain amount of moral distress that’s going to happen for you and vicarious traumatization that’s going to happen for you,” she said.

“At a certain point, we will have a conversation about empathy fatigue and about looking after themselves because the veterinarian rate of suicide is too high.”

A 2005 study in England and Wales suggests that veterinarians experience the highest suicide rate: four times the national rate and twice as high as physicians and dentists.

However, Wasson said things are improving.

“There has been a shift in the last year, I would say, within the veterinary community to really embrace wellness and to really look at the factors that increase distress in veterinarians.”

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