In all honesty, I hesitated a lot before writing this article. Part of my hesitation is because of my personality. I am traditionally an upbeat guy. I don’t like negativity – it drains productivity and efficiency.
My hesitation also comes from being a man of faith. I was taught to always call on God in my time of need and not succumb to the evil chatter of the beast in my ear.
But sometimes in life, we have to “go” to unpleasant places and discuss unfortunate things.
Part of my hesitation also involves the current state of our world; we’re going through bigger challenges right now with this pandemic. But maybe I can thank this pandemic for taking me to this unpleasant place of discussing the prevalence of suicide in the veterinary field.
I believe a lot of veterinarians and veterinary staff would like to shed a light on this topic but are hesitant because there is this idea that everything we do revolves around puppies and kittens. And how can that be unpleasant?
But in fact, veterinary medicine is among the highest at-risk occupations for suicide.
According to a study published by the American Veterinary Medical Association, 24.5% of men and 36.7% of women in veterinary medicine have experienced depressive episodes, accounting for 11/2 times the prevalence of U.S. adults. In addition, 14.4% of men and 19.1% of women in the veterinary field have considered suicide.
More shocking, from 1979 to 2015, the rate of veterinarian death by suicide was up to 31/2 times as high as for the general U.S. population.
Just as human doctors, veterinarians also spend at least four years in doctoral programs.
Most veterinarians I know went to veterinary school and chose this career because of their passion for working with animals (all kinds) regardless of the monetary gain. They could have easily chosen to treat humans and make more money.
So how can performing such a pleasant job become stressful to this tragic end?
How can treating puppies and kittens bring anyone depression?
Perhaps one of the reasons is student debt. Honestly, this is a factor that deters a lot of students from entering this field, and I know several. The average student loan debt for veterinarians typically exceeds $200,000 with monthly payments of more than $2,000 on a standard 10-year repayment term. This massive debt load along with the lack of debit to income ratio makes veterinarians feel that they may never be able to achieve financial security.
Another reason that may contribute to depression among veterinarians is the long work hours. The majority of veterinarians that I personally know are general practitioners. This means that they not only treat clinical cases but also perform surgeries. Sometimes, both tasks are done in the same day with seeing appointments in the morning and then scrubbing in for surgeries in the afternoon or vice versa.
As GPs, we encounter a lot of different client personalities. The majority of our clients are appreciative of what we do and respect our time. However, I would be lying if I didn’t also mention that we do come across people who do not respect our time.
This is most obvious when they do not commit to coming in for their scheduled appointments or demand that their pet be “squeezed in” to an already tight schedule. Because of these long hours (sometimes 12-hour days), veterinarians suffer from burnout, neglect self-care and undergo compassion fatigue.
Another reason for veterinary depression that can contribute to suicide is that fact that most veterinarians wear at the very least two hats: one of a medical professional and one of a business professional. They are on ground between veterinary medicine as a service to help injured animals and relieve their pain and sufferings and one of operating a small business that has employees, bills and operating expenses.
Talk of money in the veterinary setting is considered a deadly sin. There is an unfortunate understanding that if you ever talk about money, you will be labeled as heartless, money-hungry and other various names that I can’t share here.
Exposure to euthanasia on a daily basis is another contributing factor to veterinary depression. This is by far the hardest part of the job.
Undoubtedly, our job as veterinarians is to prolong a animals’ lives by healing their illnesses and making them feel better. We never knew that we would also become educators and counselors by participating in end-of-life discussions.
Pet parents expect us to be strong – sometimes to the point of burying our own emotions. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard, “I don’t think I could do what you do.” During those dark days, it’s hard to understand if that sentiment is a compliment or a criticism of our profession. In the end, we know that euthanasia is the most humane thing to do to stop the pain and suffering of an animal.
I also cannot ignore the role of social media. We are living in the age of anonymous online reviews and individuals saying whatever it is they want to say. Veterinary teams are expected to be perfect all the time. And unfortunately, like everyone else, we sometimes have bad days. If by chance we don’t meet the client’s expectations on that particular day, they resort to aggressive and antagonistic words – sometimes even defamatory. Their words hurt more than they will ever realize.
Finally, I love what I do. If I did not, I do not think that I could spend the amount of hours I do in the office. I don’t think I would be willing to tackle difficult clinical cases or perform surgeries that may have risky outcomes.
I do not think I would be willing to forgo a lot of social and family events.
With all this being said, I cannot ignore the fact that I have fellow colleagues who may be struggling and deserve a little more compassion and understanding from our communities.