Depression and Suicide in Veterinary Medicine
Following the suicide of my friend Dr. Sophia Yin (in 2014), and several higher profile veterinarians, the profession, in unison, said we need to do something about this. I’m glad that suicide and depression are out of the closet.
Published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in March of 2015, results from the first mental health survey of U.S. veterinarians revealed that vets are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, experience bouts of depression, and have suicidal thoughts compared with the U.S. adult population. Specifically, these data indicated that nearly one in ten U.S. veterinarians might experience serious psychological distress, and more than one in six might have contemplated suicide since graduation.
This is scary and shocking.
If you have a pet you need to know this. Veterinary professionals are feeling the heat, and paying a price. Forever veterinarians have had empathy for pets, for wildlife, and for zoo and farm animals. Maybe now it’s time for you to understand the flip side.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on depression and suicide, but, as for veterinarians, it stands to reason that the enormous debt load of students coming out of school (and I mean monumental) may play a role, and it’s a good guess that the personality type of the average veterinary professional may be also a factor.
“As a profession, we are passionate; we are selfless; we try really hard and don’t accept defeat easily,” says Chicago veterinarian Dr. Natalie Marks. “We don’t leave the job at the office, it comes home with us. We take what we do to heart. Those are really excellent qualities. But that also leaves us emotionally vulnerable.”
Marks elaborates, “Many of us deal with death every single day; we tend to learn how to manage this in our own ways on the job. We do need training in this area to give us tools to more adeptly deal with the grieving families, and then how to prevent compassion fatigue.”
Dr. Christine Navarre, extension veterinarian Louisiana State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Baton Rouge and immediate past president of the North American Veterinary Community adds, “I think awareness of the issues [of depression and suicide] will prompt changes, such as training for students and peer-to-peer informal counseling. For example, bovine veterinarians talking with other bovine veterinarians who understand those specific common problems first hand.”
One challenge is the pet owning public. Once veterinarians were revered. While still an esteemed profession compared to most, higher costs and negative media reports have played a role in a drop of respectability.
I argue that in 2017 in our increasingly cynical society, short of show biz celebs, no profession is considered worthy of absolute respect and honor. And take note, these days, even movie stars like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt aren’t necessarily revered by all. State governors and company CEOs are sometimes spending “vacations” in jail. Pro athletes may use drugs or are found guilty of violent crimes. Who is left that we can we hold in high regard? Some don’t any longer respect the title of President of the United States. So, all in all, it’s no surprise that veterinarians are no longer considered with unconditional regard. No one is.
Veterinarians have never been particularly adept at describing value to clients, and when value isn’t perceived it’s no wonder some grumble about cost, and it’s one reason why, at some clinics, business isn’t so great.
I believe veterinary medicine is the best bargain around. A cancer surgery and subsequent treatment for any of us could easily reach a quarter of a million dollars or more. The same surgery and treatment using identical drugs in a dog might cost $6,000. While that is still a large amount of money, given health care costs—right or wrong—$6,000 is a bargain for cancer surgery and many months of treatment.
All of this places the veterinarian in the middle, and sometimes offering less care than they would like has increasingly become a reality. And that, too, is psychologically hard on many veterinarians. As it is, it’s frustrating not to be able to save them all. But worse, being able to potentially save a pet, but for costs or other reasons clients deny treatment. Or even worse, clients who have such a tight bond with the pet that they won’t let go, despite the recommendation to euthanize.
And when you do your best and you’re still attacked, how do you feel? The advent of social media is overall a good thing for most professions, including veterinary medicine. Communication with clients can be facilitated with social media. However, not all Yelp reviews or Facebook posts are favorable or accurate.
Loyalty in our society seems to have been tossed out the window. Several national magazine stories have encouraged pet owners to search online or call to compare prices, for even routine vaccines or spay/neuter surgery. Nothing is said about quality of care. For example, is that “high-priced” veterinary practice accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)? Things like this matter to your pet’s health, but seem to be disregarded in the search for the lowest price.
I argue there’s no way for pet owners to possibly understand what’s involved. For example, take a spay/neuter. Is the anesthesia being monitored by a professional veterinary nurse, someone who may even specialize in anesthesia, or a part-time beautician who likes pets and works at the clinic part time, and receives little continuing education? Is the anesthetic cocktail itself appropriate, or is the clinic taking anesthetic short cuts?
I’m certain dealing with us pet owners can’t always be easy, but I argue that it’s more challenging today than ever before. Some pet owners trust Dr. Google over their own veterinarian, and most check whatever you say with websites—sometimes very credible sites, like a veterinary school, or at other times “Grandma’s Pet Lovers.”
Internally, veterinary professionals are focusing on how all this has impacted the profession. That’s good.
However, the issue of declining mental health and increased rates of depression is hardly limited to veterinary medicine. In fact, what I learned was shocking.
When I looked into the issue, I found that the increase of depression and suicide is hardly specific to veterinary medicine. In 2014, the suicide rate in the United States was 13 per 100,000 people, the highest recorded rate in 28 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, according to the CDC, more people now die as a result of suicide than car accidents.
Several sources (including the CDC) confirm that first responders and medical professionals of all types are more at risk of suicide compared to the general population. But there’s a very long list of other professions facing similar challenges, including farmworkers, fishermen, lumberjacks, financial analysts, real estate agents, and more.
I have no idea why this is so, but this data ought to be a wakeup call to cast the net of concern far wider than veterinary professionals. And it’s really scary when you consider that in many states, social services pertaining to mental health have been cut back.
Still, when it comes to veterinary professionals, my hope is that we’re not, as pet owners, too quick to judge, and assume the negative. It’s likely your assumption may be incorrect.
The days of blindly following any profession—just because—are long gone, and that may be a good thing. Asking questions isn’t bad.
But I can assure you: Your veterinarian and veterinary nurses are not out to get you. In fact, it’s not about you, it’s about the animals in their care. And in that way, we have something in common: the best interest of our pets.
As Chicago veterinarian Dr. Sheldon Rubin, now retired, has said repeatedly, “Your veterinarian is your pet’s second best friend.” I think he’s right.