Some people think that all doctors live a glamorous life: fast cars, towering mansions, and lavish vacations. But that’s not always the case. While that might be true for some doctors, other doctors are really struggling.
Did you know that veterinarians 2.7 times more likely to attempt suicide than other physicians? It’s no wonder that 52% of veterinarians would not recommend a career in the profession, according to a landmark 2020 study, conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association and Merck Animal Health, of mental illness and well-being in the veterinary profession.
But why are vets particularly vulnerable to suicidal thoughts and ideations? Many factors play a role, including schooling, career path, the day-to-day stress of operating a veterinary practice.
We’re here to shine a light on veterinary well-being and show some appreciation for the people who take care of our animals—and we’re just in time for World Veterinary Day on April 24. Read on to learn more about the challenges that veterinarians face, the organizations that support them, and what you can do to join the cause.
What it Takes to Become Vet
It takes a long time to become a practicing doctor, no matter which path you choose. To become a vet, it takes four years of undergrad to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in animal biology, biology, chemistry, zoology, or other hard science. Then, they have to earn a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, or DVM, from an accredited school, which usually takes four years to complete. After veterinary school, they have to pass a certification exam to get their license.
Once they have their license, many veterinarians choose to undertake an internship, lasting for about a year, with a seasoned veterinarian. After practicing for a year or two, they can pursue a specialty, which could take another two to three years to complete, depending on their chosen specialty. Popular specialties include:
- Laboratory medicine
- Clinical pharmacology
- Internal medicine
Though specialization is not necessary to practice medicine, it can increase their salaries and job opportunities. The last step in the process is to become board certified. Though it’s not required to be a practicing veterinarian, board certification is a designation of the highest level of accreditation within a given specialty. The process includes rigorous examinations by their peers.
That’s a lot to take on so early in their careers. Chances are, the burnout begins before they even have their licenses.
Why Veterinarians Want Loyal Pet Parents
One thing that puts vets at risk for a decreased well-being is their dedication to caring for animals. Vets are often on the frontline of animal abuse and neglect cases. Other times they end up having to euthanize animals that could have been saved if their owners could afford to pay for treatment sooner. It’s hard to make life and death decisions on a daily basis. They feel helpless and often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Not to mention, veterinarians’ family and friends tend to ask for favors that are hard to say “no” to.
Unlike otter practices, including psychology, it’s not against the law for veterinarians to treat patients they know. If they decline and the animal doesn’t survive, they’ll feel incredibly guilty and risk ruining the relationship with the pet parent. Over time, these issues on top of the stress of running a practice can lead to depression and anxiety. Here are a few warning signs for clinical depression and anxiety:
- Increase in alcohol intake and substance use to “escape”
- Feeling useless, hopeless, trapped, powerless, and/or lost
- Lack of purpose, motivation, and/or meaning
- Discordance with personal values
- Anger, rage, and revenge-seeking thoughts and behaviors
- Reckless or risky behavior
- Avoiding family and friends—isolation
- Feeling anxious and/or irritable
- Lack of interest in favorite activities
- Difficulty falling and/or staying asleep or sleeping too much
- Guilt, shame, and/or failure
- Suicidal thoughts and self-harm behaviors
Having some loyal pet parents will not only help veterinarians increase business opportunities, but it will also help them streamline their practice operations and reduce stress. Loyal pet parents mean a steady flow of business and more predictable working hours. Pet parents will receive personalized and enhanced patient care to help their pets stay healthy and happy. And the vets can always refer their patients to a specialist if needed.
Taking Care of Our Veterinarians
Now that you understand the challenges that veterinarians face, it’s easy to understand why they experience burnout at a higher rate. Veterinarians scored 3.1 on a burnout scale (0-7) than other physicians, who scored 2.24, according to the AVMA and Merck Animal Health study.
Even among veterinarians, there are additional risks factors for burnout:
- Married (not to a veterinarian)
- No children
- Consistently work more than 46 hours a week
- Works evenings, weekends, and holidays
- On-call more hours than they would like
- Have debt
- Paid by salary
Vets in these categories scored a 6 or a 7 on the burnout scale.
That’s why the nonprofit Not One More Vet is stepping in to provide support. The organization started as a Facebook group created to kickstart a conversation after the suicide of a prominent veterinarian, Dr. Sophia Yin. The group, started by Nicole McArthur, DVM, went from 20 people to become the largest veterinary support group in the world with more than 26,000 members.
The organization provides support for veterinarians, support staff, and veterinary students through:
Education: Crisis intervention, emotional intelligence lectures workshops, and more
Research: Compiling statistics and understanding the underlying causes of suicide
Volunteering: NOMV volunteers include mental health professionals, DVMs, support staff, and pet parents who fundraise, organize programs, speak at events, and more
NOMV’s goal is to transform the mental health status of the industry so veterinary professionals can not only survive, but thrive.
NOMV has even partnered with BetterHelp, an e-counseling platform, to provide one month of counseling free of charge for veterinary professionals.
Here’s How You Can Say Thanks—5 Ways to Show Appreciation for Your Vet
At this point, you might be wondering, “What can I do to help?” Here are 5 ways to show appreciation for your vet:
- Share this blog on social media
- Donate to NOMV
- Invest in NOMV
- Race—participate in NOMV’s Race Around the World
- Volunteer for NOMV
Here are a few things struggling veterinarians can do to cope, according to Dr. Katie Lawlor:
- Awareness: By having the courage to name our biggest fears, we can begin to better understand the role they play in our lives.
- Identify: Pay attention to the images and scenes that replay in your mind. What is happening in them? What is scary about them? Can you counteract these with more realistic scenarios based on experience and evidence?
- Self-gratitude: Whenever you feel scared, focus on what you are grateful for instead. For example, if you are afraid that you won’t know how to respond in an emergency, remind yourself of your extensive years of training and the knowledge you hold. Thank yourself for working so hard.
- Write: Getting your fears down on paper is important because trying to rationalize them just doesn’t work. We are more likely to generate helpful solutions once we have some emotional distance from our fears.
- Read: Reading a book or an article about someone you admire who suffered with—and overcame—a challenging situation can offer insightful perspectives on how you can begin to move past your fears.
- Act: Our fears are just fears. They are created by our minds in a misguided effort to “prepare and protect” us. When we face our fears, they automatically become weaker, because we realize that reality isn’t as dark as what we’ve conjured up in our imagination. We can act despite our fears—and be that much stronger for it.
- Reframe: Whenever fear strikes, try to “reframe” it. Instead of picturing all the “bad things” that could happen, think of something positive that might happen.
- Ask: What are your fears trying to tell you about yourself? Can you learn anything from your fears while simultaneously refusing to let them get in the way of who you want to be?
- Be authentic: What would it look like to put the person you wanted to be out into the world? Take a moment to imagine this. What could you do? Who could you help?
- Speak with those “who get it” and have been there themselves. Those who have struggled in the past want to support those facing challenges now.
As World Veterinary Day approaches, let’s all take a moment to say thank you to our vets. Whether it’s through social media, posting a rave review, or an email, express your gratitude for the person who takes care of your pets.
A little “thank you” goes a long way in putting a smile on someone’s face and helping them reignite their passion for their profession and their zest for life.