Veterinary Suicide

September is Suicide Awareness month. It’s never an easy topic, but I think people need to talk about it and try to help one another out.

Veterinary Medicine has a very high suicide rate matching rates for medical doctors, and police officers and other rescue/disaster workers. Long, irregular hours, high debt to income ratio, and something called compassion fatigue all play a role in the reasons for suicide in the veterinary world. The Center for Disease Control published a study that 1 out of 6 veterinarians have considered suicide, that number is INSANE. I have worked with over 20 Veterinarians in my career so far and that means that at least 3 of those Veterinarians have contemplated it!

One may wonder why the suicide rate is so high in this field, there seems to be many different factors.

Dr. Tomasi, in a May 2 CDC webinar, pointed to the following factors for the high suicide proportionate mortality rate among U.S. veterinarians:

  • Demands of practice such as long work hours and work overload.
  • Practice management responsibilities.
  • Client expectations and complaints.
  • Knowledge of euthanasia procedures and training to view euthanasia as a normal and acceptable method to relieve suffering
  • Ever-increasing educational debt-to-income ratio.
  • Poor work-life balance
  • Access to controlled substances such as euthanasia solution and the pharmacological training to calculate a lethal dose.”

I am going to touch on these topics a little deeper, from my own personal experiences.

Demands of Practice

I am an hourly worker, I punch in and out and am paid for every minute I spend at work, this makes it easier for me to leave since my boss doesn’t want to pay me over time (but I will when the need is there). Most veterinarians are Salary, if they are the practice owner they are even worse off and only make money when the clinic is making money. I know many doctors who arrive at work very early in the morning and are the last to leave the clinic. They see appointments in the middle of the day and at the beginning and end they are making phone calls, going over the lab work, and researching things they need for a complicated case. Most veterinarians in my experience do not want to turn a sick pet away, so even if they are swamped, they will take on that extra case to make sure that pet gets the care it needs.

Practice Management Responsibilities

In the earlier years of vet school, the vet student was only taught about veterinary medicine and very little was taught on how to manage and run a business. Then those students would graduate, start a practice, and have no clue on how to properly run and manage a business and its staff. Vet schools have since realized this and are now offering more business classes, but most people getting into the field are still Doctors and not managers. This can create a large amount of stress, owning your own practice is a wonderful thing, but the stresses that come along with it are tough and while support systems are getting better, there is still a large amount of work that needs to be done.

Client Expectations and complaints

I am not blaming you, we have so many wonderful clients who we all love and enjoy when they bring their pets in, but there are the (very) few and very loud clients that burn us out. They expect you to be there for their pets (and only their pets) at every waking moment for something that could wait until the clinic is open. Now, we would love to be able to give every individual pet our undivided attention at all times, this just isn’t some thing we can do. In my clinic we can see 50 pets in a day, between 3 doctors, most days we only have 2 doctors on at a time. This is 25 pets per doctor a day. Some are very ill, some just need routine well care, and some are somewhere in between. Veterinarians do the best they can to make sure every pet is given the care they need, but sometimes there are just unrealistic expectations, that cannot be met, and for many vets this is difficult because they truly want what is best for all of their patients. We have gotten online reviews stating that we only are in it for the money and try to push things that aren’t necessary. Now, a veterinary practice is in fact a place of business, we all are paid and not volunteer (although many technicians and doctors do volunteer their free time outside of work in same way, shape or form), we do need to charge for our services and time. We all have families to feed and roofs to keep over our heads. Not only that, in the clinics I have worked at, we only recommend testing that we believe will give us the answers we need to make your pet health. Preventative blood work is by far the BEST way to see metabolic disease BEFORE your pet is symptomatic, meaning we can actually extend your pets quality of life! We are not trying to empty your wallet, and none of us are there for the money (trust me veterinarians and technicians have astronomical debt to income ratios!). It hurts us when somebody claims we are only doing what we do for the money, that I can promise you is not the case.

Ever increasing debt to income ratio

“For those entering veterinary school in the Fall of 2016, the estimated total cost of attendance (tuition + fees + average living expenses, assuming a 4% increase each year) for four years ranges from $147,000 to $250,000 for in-state resident tuition at a public institution. Non-resident tuition at public institutions ranges from $191,000 to $338,000. At private institutions the total estimated cost ranges from $264,000 to $393,000. You can compare costs at schools you’re considering, by visiting VINFoundation.org/CostofEducation.” This information is off of the VIN (Veterinary Information Network) Foundation website. a MINIMUM of 6 figures in student loan debt! The United States Bureau of Labor states that the mean wages of a veterinarian is $90,420 where the mean wages for a Family Practice human doctor is $208,560, that is MORE THAN DOUBLE! The average student loan debt in 2016 for Medical degrees was around $190,000. So around the same cost for schooling, and MUCH lower wages in veterinary medicine.

Poor Work – Life Balance

Most veterinarians do not leave the clinic mentally. They are worried about the emergency surgery they did that morning, that little kitten who was vomiting, the euthanasia of the old dog they have known since it was a tiny puppy. It keeps them up at night. I get texts from doctors on their days off to follow up with a client we saw together the day before, even sometimes when they are on vacation! We in the clinic all work long days and we all have families waiting for us at home (even if its just our fur babies), but work never really leaves us when we walk out that door at the end of the day. That client who left sobbing because we couldn’t help their beloved 4 legged friend eats us up. The client who is struggling to feed their family, and just spent their last dollars trying to make their sick pet feel better. Its hard and our personal lives suffer greatly.

Access to controlled substances, such as euthanasia solution, and the training to know the lethal dose

Not all veterinarians use euthanasia solution, but it is used. Some also overdose on other controlled substances. Now this is NOT saying that veterinarians are drug addicts at all. I am sure it happens, but the majority veterinarians take their DEA licenses VERY seriously and DO NOT abuse substances. But, that being said when you are severely depressed and contemplating ending your life I am sure it is very tempting knowing that these substances are very close at and and you have the ability to just grab them and use them to fulfill that dark, dark, terrible desire.

Depression is a terrible disease that does not discriminate. How can you help? Try to practice kindness because you never know what the other person is going through and/or has gone through. Reach out to those you care about. Raise people up instead of bringing them down. Follow Qwerty’s mantra “Just chase the frisbee and nothing else will matter”

If you or any one you know is feeling lost, depressed, or are considering ending your life, PLEASE reach out to some one you love and care about. I promise you (from somebody with experience with mental illness) IT DOES GET BETTER. Always Keep Fighting!

Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255 (USA)

Help for Suicidal Thoughts – Multiple phone numbers and links (United Kingdom)

If you know of any other hotlines or resources, please feel free to leave them in the comments! Have personal experience you want to share? Feel free, I will make sure this is a safe, positive place!

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