It’s a relatively new field in Canada, but Erin Wasson is leading the charge as the country’s first veterinary social worker at the University of Saskatchewan‘s Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM).
The program is a partnership between the University of Regina faculty of social work and the WCVM. At the time, Wasson was completing her masters in social work, but because of her background and personal interest in animals, became the perfect fit.
In 2014, the position was implemented in the animal hospital and broader WCVM.
The role integrates social work with veterinary practice. Wasson provides support to staff, students, faculty in the building as well as clients in the large and small clinic.
“We have sort of a unique role as paraprofessionals to support veterinarians and the work that they do,” Wasson said.
“When there are struggles that come up in the human and animal bond, or in the human or animal interface we can help prepare veterinarians to manage those concerns and then also work alongside veterinarians to meet those needs.”
Wasson said some of those areas include situations where they know if there’s an animal welfare concern, children could also be at risk.
“We do a lot of attending to issues I would call “one welfare,” Wasson said. “That means you’re attending to not only the welfare of animals, but also the welfare of human beings that are their counterparts.”
The position ultimately began after recognizing the need for veterinary social support.
“Vets are under a lot of stress and pressure. They work in a lot of isolation,” Wasson said.
“There’s this culture of overwork that’s celebrated and all that combined with people who are really devoted to the work that they do can set people up to not be well.”
Dr. Jordan Woodsworth is a clinical associate veterinarian in the small animal hospital. She says empathy fatigue is one of the things often talked about in her profession.
“We spend a lot of time caring for people and caring for their animals and that can really be an emotional drain on us,” she said.
“I think people tend to feel a bit stressed about the balance between their work and their lives.”
She says one of the big challenges for her is being devoted to the job, but also recognizing the commitment to her family is more important.
“We don’t necessarily always do a great job of supporting that in our profession and providing space for that balance,” Woodsworth said.
“I would say that there are many of us who experience some type of mental un-wellness at some point in our careers in our lives. It’s a tough profession, it’s a tough life.”
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She said social work plays a critical role in supporting veterinarians and students, but also taking some of the burden away when it comes to care and collaboration for clients.
“I think vets can often think that they need to be all things to everyone and we don’t have good training and good tools to provide mental health support, nor should we be doing that.”
Wasson said the WCVM has started to provide mental health first aid for free for all staff, students and faculty that want to take that training to better support themselves and better liaise clients to services. They’ve also been partnering with different organizations in the community to provide supports.
“The Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association has also provided member wellness and member well-being services,” Wasson said. “They are providing free counselling services for four-to-six sessions a year province-wide for all of their membership.”
“Those kinds of initiatives are what’s really going to protect veterinarian mental health.”
Since the onset of the program, Wasson has had three practicum students. While the students don’t choose their placements, she said the skills learned are all transferable.
“I think one of the misconceptions about vet social work is that it’s a specialty,” Wasson said. “A lot of the skills that you learn in different areas of social work are applicable to veterinary social work, all we’re doing is just also assessing for the animal.”
As for the program, Woodsworth thinks there’s lots of opportunity to grow and hopes to see more collaboration between veterinarians and social workers.
“We have so many students who need support, so many staff and faculty who need support,” she said. “The demand is definitely there.”