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'Here for their people as well': Edmonton veterinary clinic expands services to help humans

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An Edmonton veterinarian has brought in an extra set of hands to help with human mental health at the practice.

The Edmonton Holistic Veterinary Clinic (EHVC) has hired a full-time social worker to support clients and staff as they navigate caring for sick pets.

"With the relationships that I've built with the clients over the years, I've seen them at really vulnerable points, at painful points and I just really wanted to be able to provide some depth of support," said Dr. Jennifer Marshall, a veterinarian and owner of EHVC.

"It's clear to me in our daily functioning that we're not just treating the animals, we're here for their people as well."

Marshall was immediately interested when she learned about a veterinary support certification for social workers. Her clinic does a lot of end-of-life care for animals, she said, and she saw an opportunity to extend services to the people that love the pets she treats.

"We've always done our best to be there for our clients in what they need, but we're veterinarians and we don't have specific training in human mental health," she said. "Edmonton is filled with a really passionate set of pet parents and really good animal clients and animal caregivers.

"And I just wanted them to have as much support as possible."

In March 2022, registered social worker Joey Leslie started at the practice. She said she applied for the position shortly after her own traumatic pet loss, when her 13-year-old dog died suddenly one night.

"I was not prepared for it," she said. "Afterwards, I didn't know what to do. I felt like a piece of me was kind of missing. I felt like I didn't have people I could talk to about it, and I just didn't know how to support myself."

"Sometimes the social worker can't social work themselves."

Leslie's job is to help people navigate the complicated emotions that can accompany a trip to the vet, like grief, financial stress or uncertainty around a diagnosis. But she's not just there for pet problems, she said.

"Sometimes there's clients that come in that just have things going on in their lives," Leslie added. "I've talked to people who [are] dealing with their own mental health concerns, or their own depression or their own substance misuse while they're here with their animal."

She also supports staff members who are dealing with sick animals, distraught families and burnout from a shortage of veterinary professionals in the province, said Marshall.

"We're always trying to do the best that we can but it can be a really emotionally taxing job, because we can feel grief, and we can feel fear and we can feel the stress of it," Marshall added. "So to have somebody to help walk us through those feelings as we're navigating those situations is amazing."

An appointment with Leslie ranges from $60 to $100 for the public, but her services are currently covered by the practice for its clients and staff. Leslie also runs two free pet loss support groups a month.

Whether she's helping families make hard decisions or supporting the staff that have to offer them those choices, Leslie said she sees herself working in this role long-term.She also hopes that more social workers join forces with veterinary practices.

"There could be so many more of us," she added. "Once we can understand the benefits and why somebody might want to have a social worker in their clinic, then we can grow from here."

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Marek Tkach 

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