Why is suicide among the veterinary field a growing problem and what can be done?
The disproportionate suicide rate among veterinary professionals has begun to receive media attention. Recently, I have received a few inquiries on why this is. According to a 2018 report by the CDC, 1 in 6 veterinarians have contemplated suicide in the past year. Male veterinarians are 1.6 times and female veterinarians are 2.4 times more likely than the general public to commit suicide. Similarly, male veterinary technicians are 5 times and female veterinary technicians are 2.3 times more likely to commit suicide. Why is this? I’m going to address the challenges we face, what I do to protect myself and my staff, and what the public can do to help.
While in undergrad, I was employed as a veterinary assistant. Several veterinarians advised me to become a human physician. They warned me that my monetary and time investment would be pennies on the dollar in vet med compared to human medicine. During my time as a vet assistant, I was frequently verbally abused by clients and occasionally when client’s emotions became physical (such as threats or punching holes in the wall), law enforcement had to be called. Despite these warnings and witnessing the sometimes irrational behavior of clients, I forged on and became a veterinarian. Many may wonder why?
The almost unanimous answer by those entering the veterinary field is a desire to help animals. We have a strong desire to help the helpless, to be there for the innocent creatures that cannot speak for themselves. In the end, sometimes the goals and dreams of saving lives do not equal the daily reality of working in the field. Our education teaches us to use the highest levels of technology to save lives. We begin our careers enthused to help, but all too soon the reality is very different in the real world. Many veterinarians are called upon daily to euthanize pets that could be saved with medical treatment. I believe this harsh reality causes many working in veterinary medicine to become depressed.
Aside from the daily sadness, there is overwhelming debt. The cost of a veterinary degree has skyrocketed from approximately $40,000 in the 1970s and '80s to over $200,000 today, depending on the school attended. The average student loan debt for veterinarians in the US in 2019 was $183,302, according to nerdwallet.com. Likewise, the average cost of a veterinary technician degree is $16,910 according to vettechnicians.org. Comparatively, a newly-graduated veterinarian on average is paid only $76,663, while a human doctor can expect to make at least double that. The newly graduated vet tech can expect a salary of $18-$20 per hour, while their human medicine counterpart, a registered nurse can earn $35-$50. This financial struggle can become overwhelming for many in vet med causing them to question their career choices.
While the veterinary staff struggle to make ends meet financially and participate in ending lives that could have been saved, they do so while often being disrespected and on some days outright verbally abused. One of my staff members went over a treatment plan outlining recommended care and costs with a client and when the woman was denied by our financing partner, she told my employee, “You are an ugly person inside and out. You must have no one who cares about you because you are so ugly.” Sadly, veterinary professionals do not get the respect we deserve. Most people would not imagine telling their dentist, “What can you do for $100?” or saying to your chiropractor, “It’s not like you are a real doctor!,” or calling your surgeon’s office and demanding the receptionist give the cost of a major surgery over the phone. These are challenges we face daily. Suffering this daily disrespect causes some in the vet field to develop thick skin and some fall into deep depression.
Additionally, veterinary staff has the stress of daily negotiations. This is unique to the vet field. I’ve never heard of a person negotiating with their physician. Veterinarians are doctors too. We go to school for many years to know how to best treat an animal’s medical needs. We are often forced to compromise a pet’s medically necessary care, as an owner sets out to negotiate the bill. Sadly, this often results in the same owner, a few months or years later, blaming the vet for their pet’s failing health. When veterinarians are forced to compromise care, it is the animal that suffers. Once again, veterinary staff is watching a pet suffer, while sometimes neglectful owners place blame. As you can imagine, this can cause overwhelming depression and leave the animal-loving veterinary staff to feel unfulfilled in their career.
Last, is a veterinarian's view of death. Since veterinarians are called upon to “end suffering” daily by ending a pet’s life, some vets have a different view of death than others. They may feel that ending their life is a means to end suffering.
So, what can be done? It is important for all people to be mindful of their mental health. Remember to seek treatment for depression and seek out support services. Aside from medical help, there are resources such as “not one more vet,” which is a Facebook group where veterinary staff can seek support through their peers. It can be helpful to know you are not alone.
Somehow those of us in the veterinary field must find a balance. We must keep our passion for helping puppies and kittens. We must find satisfaction in the joy of saving a life in an emergency surgery. We must hold onto our compassion. For me, I try to remember a few childhood cliche sayings… things like “sticks and stones may break my bones…,” “what goes around comes around,” “water off a duck’s back,” and anything else that helps me keep a sense of humor. My staff and I try to find sarcastic wit in stressful situations. It takes a sense of humor when you work in a field where feces, urine, and anal glands are daily job hazards! We try to tackle cyber bullies like celebrities reading their “Mean Tweets” on late night TV. Most of all, we try to have fun! We have staff parties and take staff trips. I hope that by creating a family environment my staff will remember that even on the toughest days we are here to support each other.
October is staff appreciation for the veterinary field. As a thank you to my hard-working staff, we took a trip to Zoo to You in Paso Robles. We had an amazing opportunity to interact with numerous exotic animals! We bottle fed kangaroo, held a lemur, fed foxes, pet a porcupine, laughed with a kookaburra, watched otters fish, and so much more. For animal lovers it was a dream come true! We work hard, but for our mental health, it is equally important to play hard!
For my team, it’s random acts of kindness that keeps us energized. It’s Sandra and Donna dropping off yummy treats! It’s Rachel with a kind word and an adorable pup-stoller. It’s Valarie bringing Jetho by just to say hi! It’s the client that calls to compliment Hannah on her amazing job assisting her with saying goodbye to a beloved pet. These are the relationships that makes the difficult day worth enduring.
Whether you work in the veterinary field or another career, stress for everyone has been at an all-time high as we navigate life during a pandemic. Remember, there is one thing that everyone can do to reduce the stress. Simply be kind. With every interaction, we all each have a choice to be a ray of sunshine or the straw that broke the camel’s back. Somehow, many have lost common courtesy and manners. So, next time you visit the coffee shop, your mechanic, your dentist, or your veterinarian, just be nice. Remember, we are all doing the best we can and we are trying our best to help.