It was in spring 2018 that I found out one of my dearest mentors in the veterinary profession had committed suicide. I was standing in my living room when I received the news. I closed my computer, hunched over and immediately began to sob.
I had only spoken to him a few weeks prior. He called me to check in and see how I was doing. He wanted to make sure Walla Walla was treating me well, that I was loving mixed animal practice like he knew I would, and he wanted to make sure that I was doing okay after the loss of Papa. What he hadn’t said still haunts me.
When I asked how he was doing there was a pause before he told me he was doing well and he thought of me often. Looking back, there was a note of sadness during that pause that I can’t shake. Why hadn’t I asked him how he really was doing? Why hadn’t I seen it then?
It had been 8 years since I had seen him in person. It was 8 years since I rode with him in the vet truck, listening to classic rock music and wondering how good the fishing was going to be that summer. It was 8 years since he told me to be a light in this profession and now, one of my lights is forever extinguished.
This story of unexpected, immediate loss due to suicide in the veterinary profession is common. It is National Suicide Prevention Week and I hope to shed light on this disturbing trend. Male veterinarians are 2.1 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population while female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely.
This is now a crisis. The effects do not stop with veterinarians. It now extends to veterinary technicians, assistants, receptionists and shelter workers.
Our profession is so beautiful in that it upholds the deepest bonds of love between humans and animals. We get to be a voice for the unspoken. We are privileged to heal without our patients telling us what’s wrong. We get to develop relationships with families and farmers that can span decades. We are a community of deeply empathetic, compassionate people, many of whom have the ability to feel the pain and distress of those around them.
Veterinary schools are often the hardest of the professional schools to get in to. Most applicants spend most of their childhood and then college careers building complex, well rounded resumes that combine top academic performances, leadership roles, club activities and veterinary clinic involvement. This intense drive and passion to become a veterinarian automatically selects for perfectionist tendencies where failure, or perceived failure, can be particularly devastating for that individual. The compassion and empathic personalities that often make up the best veterinarians also makes these individuals more emotionally devastated if a patient is lost, if a mistake is made, and especially if owners are upset. Burnout and compassion fatigue can be a real danger.
With the advent of social media and keyboard warriors, the veterinary profession has recently been witness to intense online bullying and slander. It is common for someone who is hurting to lash out and try to hurt others. This is especially common with upset pet owners. What is no longer common, the veterinary profession notwithstanding, is that there is no longer compassion for the human on the other side of the keyboard.
Many of my fellow veterinarians who recently committed suicide were some of the kindest, most compassionate, caring people I ever met. My mentor alone could light up a room with his story telling and laughter. But they all have had a few things in common: Most of my colleagues have had difficulty separating work from home life, they have been deeply affected by cases and patients, they have had difficulty dealing with the financial burden of student loans, and they have had to contend with online bullying and emotional blackmail from clients.
So the real question is — what can we do differently?
As a veterinarian, I pride myself on practicing with compassion and kindness. However, over the years, in order to prevent burn out and compassion fatigue, I have had to develop work/life boundaries, focus on hobbies outside of work, lean in to personal development and craft coping strategies for when I feel like I have failed a patient or an owner. I have had to learn, and more importantly, accept that I am human.
The most important thing that a veterinary professional can do is to ask for help.
The Not One More Vet support group on Facebook is a great place to connect with other professionals. If you need more immediate care, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.