Take away the cost of a veterinary education for a moment. Your veterinarian must treat her patients for far less money than a human doctor. When money is not available, the vet might be called greedy or even worse, have to euthanize a curable animal.
Veterinarians also have one of the highest student debt burdens of any profession. It’s clear that veterinarians feel “the weight of debt.” Because of these pressures, veterinarians are 3.5 times more at risk of suicide than the general population, according to the CDC.
However, little research has been conducted looking specifically at the mental health dangers of student loans among veterinarians.
For Mental Health Awareness Month in May 2020, we surveyed our community. Note that our readership is much more likely to have six figures of debt and have a graduate degree. This makes the survey an excellent reflection of mental health among the population of borrowers with the largest student debt burdens.
In a survey of 3,460 people from the Student Loan Planner email list, we uncovered staggering data about debt, student loan depression and suicide. Of that total, almost 200 were veterinarians.
Before I get into the results, which are honestly quite depressing, I want to share some good news. There are countless mental health resources out there ready to help you or a friend or colleague.
Financially, student debt is actually completely solvable. You have to understand the rules of our messed up student loan system in America to know why, but no one should ever feel trapped because of their student loan debt.
That said, the size of student debt from vet school is triggering extremely serious mental health concerns among veterinarians as this study clearly shows.
Please note: The following may contain triggering or sensitive information about depression, anxiety and suicide.
Key Findings Among Veterinarians
- 1 in 10 veterinarians had considered suicide due to student loans
- 6 in 10 veterinarians reported feeling depression due to student loans
- 9 in 10 veterinarians reported feeling severe anxiety due to student loans
The percent of veterinarians reporting serious mental health challenges because of student loans was very concerning.
For each category we looked at, veterinarians had the highest levels of suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety because of student loans of all professions in our survey.
Student loan debt is only one aspect in the multi-factorial reasons the veterinary profession has such a high rate of mental health issues and suicide. The profession is stressful as it is and in a daily basis. But constantly feeling weighed down by crushing debt makes life outside work just as stressful at times and certainly compounds the issues we face. Unfortunately, as tuition continues to rise while starting salaries are fairly stagnant, I don’t see a way to lessen the stress
Veterinarian salaries do not match veterinary school debt which makes mental health issues and suicide associated with seemingly unending debt a much larger problem in this profession.
The Cost of Vet School is Much Higher Than You Think
In the comment section on our own website, we’ve had school officials say that we overstate the cost of vet school. That official cited the average student debt burden of the graduating class a few years ago as the reason.
That shows the exact problem in how Colleges talk about the cost of vet school. Averages include the 30% of veterinarians who owe less than $100,000, according to the AVMA data for the class of 2018.
The only way you can owe less than that after earning your DVM is if you received financial support while in school.
It’s clear many vet schools do not do a good job painting a realistic picture of the student debt new veterinarians will graduate with.
We have made student loan plans for almost 400 veterinarians. Their average debt was $277,000, far higher than the $167,000 number reported by the AVMA.
Paying back $277,000 would require paying about $30,000 per year for 10 years. A typical veterinarian might earn $80,000 a year post graduation. You can see the mental strain that could place on someone.
Here’s how one veterinarian put it:
Schools should talk about the responsibility you are taking on DURING SCHOOL NOT AFTER, and discussing repayment options PRIOR TO GRADUATION, not having to research it on my own.
Stakeholders Aren’t Providing Real Help to Veterinarians
This survey showing the mental strain of student loans is something that veterinarians have known about for a long time.
A few years ago, veterinary students, veterinarians, and educators met for the “Fix the Debt” summit to try and come up with a solution.
The action plan included vague goals like “lowering student loan interest rates” and “raising funds for scholarships” and “increasing financial literacy.”
Colleges did not agree to doing something that might actually matter, such as reducing the cost of providing a veterinary education.
Employers of veterinarians are trying. Banfield’s solution was to offer their employees $150 a mo of student loan repayment assistance. When your typical employee owes six figures and needs to pursue a loan forgiveness strategy, that doesn’t help very much.
So the most influential players in the veterinary industry are not providing real solutions to the plague of student debt. They seem to want to look like they’re doing something without expending significant resources to cure the problem.
One way deans of vet schools could start: cut costs aggressively and open more seats to veterinarians at lower cost in state universities.
I know that’s not enough and that’s not a big enough solution, but everything should be on the table.
How Veterinarians Can Deal with the Mental Strain of Student Loans
Veterinarians with huge student debt can feel trapped. Along with the other strains vets deal with, it can take away hope and the feeling that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
The good news is that student loans are never as bad as you think they are, regardless of the balance.
If you owed $400,000 of student debt from a private vet school, you would have to pay about $50,000 per year for 10 years.
That kind of payment would be impossible without living in poverty as a young veterinarian.
However, instead of paying $50,000 per year, you could pay $500 a month with the PAYE AS YOU EARN (PAYE) plan.
In 20 years, you’d owe about $800,000. That would be forgiven in 2040, but you’d owe income taxes on that full balance as if you’d gotten a bonus.
To prepare for that tax, you could invest about $800 a month into index mutual funds at Vanguard, and you’d likely have enough money to make your tax payment.
Paying $500 a month for PAYE works out to about 7% of your income. Investing $800 a month is about 9% of your income.
Hence, this veterinarian could treat her loans like a tax instead of a debt.
The debt would amount to a 7% + 9% = 16% tax for 20 years.
If you take away 16% of a $80,000 income, that leaves the vet with $67,200 leftover. That isn’t a wage that will make you rich, but it’s a wage that will give you a good life financially if you budget and save.
Mental Health Resources
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please text HELLO to 741741 to reach a crisis counselor at the Crisis Text Line. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Where to Get More Help
If you or someone you know is struggling with student debt from vet school, we help veterinarians get a clear plan to eliminate their anxiety caused by their student loans.
You can also join the Not One More Vet Facebook group for mental health resources for veterinarians.
If you know of more places to get mental health support as a veterinarian, please share in the comments.
If you’re not a veterinarian, please thank your vet the next time you take your pet for an appointment. Veterinarians need a lot more words of encouragement and deserve your gratitude.
We surveyed 3,460 people from the Student Loan Planner email list. Eighty-five percent of respondents were between the ages of 20 and 39. Seventy percent of respondents had between $100k to $800k in student loan debt, and included 63% females and 37% males. 183 veterinarians were included in the sample.