Veterinarians are twice as likely to commit suicide than dentists and doctors. In vet school I was aware of the abnormally high suicides associated with my chosen profession thanks to my psychologist father. But I had no idea WHY this statistic existed. I shrugged it off, thinking that whatever the cause, it would never affect me.
It has been recently brought to the general publics’ attention as a major issue. A few weeks ago Sy Montgomery of The Globe Correspondent released an article titled, “Why do so many veterinarians commit suicide?” It was an excellent read and highly informative.
But I felt like I needed to expand on the reasons why suicide is so prevalent within my profession;
1) One of the first factors listed in the article was stress inflicted by owners. A major part of our job is not just treating animals, but managing their owners. Dealing with people can be stressful in any job. But why so much as a vet? I think this is why:
A) The risk of getting sued. Society has become increasingly litigious, and no matter how hard I might have tried to save Fido during that emergency surgery, he died and his owner is upset. Upset enough to drag my reputation through the mud or even sue for malpractice.
B) Owner compliance. I imagine it’s hard enough as a human doctor to convince your patients to watch their weight, exercise, and take their heart meds. So just picture what we’re up against when we try to get our owners to do the same for their pets. I can’t tell you how heart breaking it is when I’ve just placed a cast on a broken leg and given instructions to keep the leg dry and return in a week for a bandage check, only to have Fluffy brought into us five weeks later with a gangrenous leg now needing amputation.
2) Debt. I won’t depress you with how much I owe from student loans, but it’s on par with most medical school students. The Globe stated that vets earn a third of what doctors and dentists do. This in itself is daunting.
But for me the debt situation worsened after getting married; my debt automatically became Husband’s debt. And he bares the brunt of at least half of it since we had our daughter and I decided to work part time to save on child care costs. (We live in Ireland and Husband is Irish. In Ireland, having a quarter to half a million in debt from school is unheard of. European Higher level education is basically free compared to what Americans shell out.)
3) Euthanasia and encounters with death. As a veterinarian, I understand that sometimes euthanasia is the kindest treatment I can offer to my patients. But I got some shock when I began to get asked to put down healthy dogs by owners. At first I refused, but then a nurse pointed out to me that if I didn’t do it humanely, the owners would just do it themselves…and not humanely. I’m faced with these situations far more often than you’d like to know about. And even when an animal might be better off being humanely euthanized, I struggle with my professional decisions daily.
4) *Isolation and lack of support. This one didn’t get mentioned by The Globe and I think is the clincher. Many rural vets and even city vets may be working alone most of the time. As a new graduate this is mind boggling, but even for someone with experience, isolation from peers and support is emotionally taxing. Not to mention if you lie awake questioning if Bruno’s alright after his operation, are on-call and getting woken at all hours of the night, then have to get up and give your patients 110% to do it all over again in the morning—ALONE.
And being physically isolated is only one side of the coin. In previous jobs, I’ve experienced a huge lack of support in the work place though surrounded by peers. If your boss and coworkers don’t have your back when something goes wrong, (and in medicine and surgery something always does), then you find yourself in a toxic and self doubting state of mind.
It’s no wonder suicide rates within the profession are so high. Now, what are we going to do about it?