The statistics are alarming: About 1 in 10 veterinarians suffer serious psychological distress and nearly 1 in 6 has considered suicide.
By Susan Wyatt
The statistics are alarming: About 1 in 10 veterinarians suffer serious psychological distress and nearly 1 in 6 has considered suicide. The 2014 Centers for Disease Control survey found that “demands of practice” was the most commonly reported stressor.
There are several things at play.
Dr. Karen West, Medical Director of VCA Redwood Animal Hospital in Redmond, says she thinks perception of the profession has changed.
“We used to be considered a very honorable profession, without question,” she said. Now I think that has changed in the eye of the public because… a lot of it has to do with finances.”
Finances for both doctor and client. Veterinarians don’t get paid well relative to their years of schooling and their student debt can be astronomical. And advances in treatment mean costs are higher for pet owners.
“Everybody that goes into veterinary medicine … we do this because you love animals, you love people, you want to help,” said West. “You don’t do it for the money, so when things don’t go right – we can’t control everything — and people blame us. That’s a huge part of the depression problem.”
“I am so involved with some of my clients’ personal lives when they come to see me because it’s a family – I always say we practice ‘wholistically’ – that’s with a ‘w’ – the whole family is involved when I give care to a patient, so you get very personally involved. You can’t help it.”
Compassion fatigue comes from dealing with suffering, illness and death on a daily basis.
West, who is so very close to her patients and their families, says on average, she loses one patient a week.
“So, I experience the loss of a patient … at least 50 times a year,” she said. “And in order to be able to perform that duty and to be able to help a client through that you have to believe it’s the right thing to do. You have to believe the patient is suffering.”
So, for a veterinarian with mental illness or depression, that could make suicide – euthanasia – easier to think about.
“We’re exposed to euthanasia so much, and the fact that we believe in it, makes it just that little bit easier.”
Veterinarians also have the knowledge and the means to do it.
Social media is also a big problem.
In 2014, New York veterinarian Shirley Koshi took her own life after she was the target of a campaign of harassment over a stray cat she had taken in. A woman sued for custody of the cat, but without proof of ownership Koshi refused to give the cat up. She was mercilessly attacked both online and in the form of picketing outside her practice. News reports said Koshi may have been dealing with financial problems, but the harassment added another stressor.
West said any client can go to Facebook or other sites and make disparaging or false statements.
“We tend to hold ourselves to a very high standard,” she said. “Most of us are perfectionists and I think when you are held at fault for something that you’re just putting your whole heart and soul into, that wears on you.”
“I’ve always got somebody in tears,” she said of her staff. “They’re either crying because we’ve lost a patient or they’re crying because somebody made some intonation that they didn’t care.”
West emphasized that 99 percent of her clients are wonderful.
“They’re very appreciative of our caring, of our customer service, of our patient care… of who we are,” she said.
Typically, if a client complains to West or her staff there’s a simple lack of communication and that can be resolved.
“But the ones that are the really hard ones – they don’t say anything to us – they just go out and blast us,” she said.
“It’s a partnership,” she said. “I can’t tell you what to do. I can guide you, I can give you options,” she said.
But if a client decides to do plan B rather than plan A and it’s unsuccessful, they may place the blame on the doctor.
“That is really, really hard to carry around when you are doing everything you can and in your heart, that’s what you want to do – the best for that patient,” said West.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has created resources for veterinarians, including a wellness self-assessment and a training program that teaches veterinarians how to identify at-risk colleagues and help the person get professional care.
West said to cope with the stresses, her staff members make time for “restoration” activities outside of work.
“Whether that be horseback riding, running, playing video games, hiking, cooking, antiquing… it allows them to refocus and recharge.”
“In hospital we support each other with humor and compassion – and a lot of hugs.”
Pet Loss & Suicide Prevention Resources
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Understanding the issues about suicide and mental health is an important way to take part in suicide prevention, help others in crisis, and change the conversation around suicide.
Pet loss support
The loss of a pet can be devastating. There are many resources to help you with your feelings of grief and loss.
The Seattle Animal Shelter offers a Pet Loss Support Group every Thursday from 5:30-6:45 p.m. in the shelter conference room at 2061 15th Ave. W., Seattle.
Seattle Humane’s Pet Loss Support group meets every Saturday at 10:00 a.m. at 13212 SE Eastgate Way, Bellevue.
The Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County Pet Loss Support Group meets on the second Saturday of the month at 10 a.m., 2608 Center St., Tacoma.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Not One More Vet online veterinary support group
Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement
AHELP: Animal Hospice, End-of-Life and Palliative Care Project