Mental health issues are critical to talk about, not only for veterinarians but also for other professionals, particularly healthcare professionals. Across the board, mental health challenges in the workplace, combined with the high cost of education and the anxieties and problems people face, are pushing professionals to their limit.
Dr. Carrie Jurney provides insight into some of the mental health challenges that veterinarians face. She has fostered a community of over 25,000 veterinarians, support staff, and vet students called Not One More Vet, Inc (NOMV), the largest profession-specific mental health advocacy organization I’m aware of.
What is Not One More Vet?
Not One More Vet (NOMV) was founded by Dr. Nicole McArthur in response to the loss of a prominent veterinarian, Dr. Sophia Yin. “She was an amazingly positive force in the veterinary community,” said Jurney. “She died by suicide.”
Dr. Yin’s death brought to light conversations about compassion fatigue, burnout and suicide in veterinarian medicine.
“The job is not really just playing with doggies and kitties all day,” said Jurney. “There are some very difficult, hard parts of the job that the general public never sees.”
Dr. McArthur started a Facebook group to connect with her veterinary friends who were dealing with some of the same struggles she was facing. The group grew rapidly and became a global support network for the veterinarian community. Members are from all over the world – every continent is represented in the group.
Compassion fatigue in healthcare
Compassion fatigue goes by many names. You might have experienced burnout, exhaustion or moral distress in your profession. “It’s particularly in the healthcare field [because] we’re driven by altruism and the need to help others,” said Jurney.
You begin your career, usually after a tremendous amount of schooling, with a drive and need to help people. “And then the day to day realities – the logistical realities – start to wear on you,” said Jurney.
The solution for many is just to work harder. “Because anyone who’s gotten to this stage in their career is a good hard worker, and so you try to work harder through it,” said Jurney. When you realize you can’t fix it by working harder, you get into a desperate state where you’re exhausted.
“You can no longer feel or give the amount that you used to give,” said Jurney. “You are beyond coping and into exhaustion, where we’ve grown very cynical, very angry, and we’re detached from family and friends.”
The impact of age on stress levels
Studies support a separation of stress levels between a veterinarian in their 40s and 50s vs. one in their 20s and 30s. “We definitely see different groups of people with different stress levels,” said Jurney.
“The younger you are, unfortunately, the higher rates of decreased well-being and what’s called serious psychologic distress, which is a mental health problem where you actually need mental health care to get through it.”
It makes sense since tuition costs have only gone up over the years, and the youngest vet professionals will have likely paid the highest tuition costs. According to the American Medical Veterinary Association (AMVA), the average debt for 2016 veterinary school graduates was $143,757.82. But that includes graduates who left school with $0 debt – so, the real numbers are much higher.
Student debt is a significant factor in stress levels for veterinarians. Our surveys show that Veterinarians have the highest incident of mental health challenges of any profession, with one in ten considering suicide.
Difficult decisions at the vet’s office
“Medicine has come a tremendously long way,” said Jurney. However, pet insurance isn’t common in the U.S. and the cost of treatment can get in the way for many pet owners.
Veterinarian offices buy many of the same antibiotics and medical equipment that hospitals use, and all of that comes with a high price tag attached. “The surgery that I charge – and I will admit that this is expensive for a person paying it out of their pocket and it is an emergency – we charge between $8,000 and $10,000 for that surgery,” said Jurney.
“Your dog is paralyzed. I can make it walk 94% of the time. That’s tremendous, right? Everybody wants that.”
Still, $8,000 to $10,000 is a tremendous amount of money. Making a choice to euthanize a pet is never easy, and finances can play a huge role in the decision.
Although a significant factor is how “fixable” the problem is. “Every veterinarian, especially because many of us are struggling financially ourselves, understands the reality of finances,” said Jurney.
“Veterinarians don’t want to put down the puppy whose leg is broken that they can fix.”
Why cyberbullying is common in veterinary services
“One in five veterinarians has experienced cyberbullying in their career,” said Jurney.
One common way cyberbullying starts is with a process called “surrendering.” If a pet owner can’t afford treatment, the veterinarian or someone from the support staff will adopt the pet, pay for treatment and take over caring for the animal.
“The owner goes home and they have all sorts of complicated feelings about not being able to afford their dog’s care and now the dog isn’t theirs anymore and there’s all this legal paperwork they had to sign,” said Jurney.
“And they get on Facebook, and the narrative turns into ‘those people stole my dog,’ and it explodes… now on Facebook, there are 10,000 angry people calling your clinic with death threats because you tried to help a dog.”
How to find support as a veterinarian
Cyberbullying and other mental health challenges aren’t something you learn how to react to in vet school. NOMV board member, Dr. Abby Whiting, and Dr. Caitlin DeWilde from The Social DVM have put together excellent resources on cyberbullying.
“If you are in the middle of it and you just need a quick printout PDF, a checklist of what to do, we have that for you,” said Jurney.
Veterinary professionals, including veterinarians, veterinarian staff members, and students, the Not One More Vet support groups are open to you. “We have great programs, we have a free month of therapy for all veterinary professionals through BetterHelp, and a grants program and an educational program,” said Jurney.
“We’re really trying to work on these problems that affect all too many of us.”