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Veterinarians are more than twice as likely as the rest of us to take their own lives

veterinarian suicides
Posted at 6:10 PM, Sep 12, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-12 20:18:19-04

CLEVELAND — This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, and News 5 is taking a closer look at the stresses affecting people in the veterinary profession.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), published late last year by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, found veterinarians die by suicide at higher rates than the general population.

According to the study, which examined the deaths of 11,620 veterinarians from 1979 to 2015, men in the field were 2.1 times as likely to die from suicide as the general population, while women in the field were 3.5 times as likely to die from suicide as the general population. Overall, 398 of the 11,620 veterinarians whose deaths were examined in the study died by suicide.

veterinarian suicides
PHOTO: Dr. Katie McCoy, a general practitioner at Tremont Animal Clinic, has been in the field for more than a decade.

Katie McCoy, a general practitioner, is one of the owners of Tremont Animal Clinic in Cleveland. She said many people consider being a veterinarian a dream job.

“It’s an amazing job,” McCoy said. “The great parts are taking care of puppies and kittens and meeting clients that become like lifelong friends to you. It’s awesome to see a dog grow from that little puppy, to I’ve been doing this long enough to see it at the end of its life."

But McCoy knows all too well the stresses faced by those in her profession, from long hours and isolation to crushing student loan debt. That also includes the emotional stress of treating sick or injured animals and speaking with their humans, for whom emotions can run high.

“That’s probably the hardest part for us is wanting to help that animal and save that animal and doing everything that we can, but sometimes, financially or other reasons, it’s just not an option,” McCoy said. "And it's a real struggle for veterinarians every day."

Compassion fatigue

These stresses, which affect many in the veterinary field, are sometimes referred to as “compassion fatigue” or “empathy fatigue."

"Veterinarians are at a greater risk than the general population and actually higher risk than other health professions," said Dr. Rustin Moore, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University.

Moore, who has been the dean of the college for four years, said that 23 days after he became dean, the college lost a student to suicide. That wasn't the first colleague or friend he'd lost over the years.

"We tend to be a very introverted profession, at least veterinarians," Moore said. "We are highly compassionate. We are also highly competitive and perfectionist. And when you add all that together, and then you have someone in practice and you are seeing animals that are ill, injured, some not even ill or injured, just the person no longer wants the pet, they can’t afford the pet."

There's also euthanasia, which separates veterinary medicine from other fields. Those in the veterinary field face a variety of other stressors, including long hours, isolation and student debt.

The average debt load for students at OSU's College of Veterinarian Medicine is about $200,000, Moore said. That's about $50,000 higher than the average debt in the U.S. for veterinary-related educational debt, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association.

"Some people would be higher, some would be lower, but certainly that’s pretty significant, and the starting salaries are not commensurate with the debt load," Moore said. "And so people start wondering like, 'How am I going to get out from underneath this debt?'"

How OSU is tackling the problem

The college now offers services to students to help with some of these challenges, including two full-time licensed social workers, a psychiatrist and a financial adviser to offer advice on student debt. The college, Moore said, brought the psychiatrist on three years ago, to work six hours a week.

"By having the counselors and the psychiatrist on site, it makes it convenient, it makes it easy and it also makes it easier for us to destigmatize mental health," Moore said. "We talk about mental health like diabetes. It’s a disease, it’s an illness, it’s manageable, you know. By having them on site, it’s convenient and we can talk about it and we don’t pretend that it’s some dark secret."

He noted that many veterinary students are still on their parents' health insurance and may not seek psychiatric care because they don't want their parents to know.

"The way we do it is we pay the psychiatrist," Moore said. "They don’t pay for anything. They don’t pay for the services. And so, again, it’s about access. It’s about them using it."

The college has also implemented mandatory wellness check-ins with every first-year veterinary student in the first semester and with fourth-year students, who are in clinics.

"Most recently, we just implemented a comprehensive health and well-being program into the entire college: faculty, staff and students," Moore said. "Because if we talk to the students about being healthy and well, and then they are watching their role models and mentors not do well, that’s not helpful."

Moore said it's critical for the college to talk about this issue with students, even potential students, during recruitment, interviews and orientation.

"I don’t believe they probably are talking too much about it, because they’re probably at that stage — their lifelong dream since they were probably six to eight years of age, which is when most people decide they want to be a veterinarian, that’s all they wanted to do," Moore said. "And my guess is they’ve probably not told people or talked about it cause they think it might prevent them from actually getting in."

According to Moore, students are assessed when they come to the college and show high rates of depression and anxiety — primarily anxiety. Those underlying conditions, he said, may work in tandem with other stressors, such as a rigorous curriculum and a "competitive streak," so it's important to provide students with coping skills.

He also noted the importance of creating "an inclusive environment for anybody who comes through the door" in mitigating some of the stresses that may worsen mental health struggles or suicidal thoughts.

"They should feel welcome, comfortable and a place they can thrive," Moore said. "Regardless of skin color, regardless of religion, sexual orientation or identity or any other thing. First-generation, a veteran, somebody that’s disabled or whatever."

Everyday stress

Once veterinary graduates get out of school and into the workforce, McCoy, an Ohio State graduate herself, said the stresses of school and student debt give way to the stress of long hours and trying to fit in as many pets as possible into working hours.

And, in recent years, McCoy said social media has added to the burdens faced by veterinary professionals.

"Somebody has a bad experience and sometimes it truly is a bad experience, a lot of times you’re seeing one side of it," McCoy said. "Something happens that wasn’t a veterinarian’s fault and they’re blasted on social media, they’re given a bad review, and then a bunch of people who’ve never been to that clinic or know that veterinarian or that business jump on board."

But she also said social media can be a positive thing. Facebook groups like Not One More Vet give those in the field a place to talk about issues or feelings.

“I think it’s stopped a lot of suicides," McCoy said. "I think a lot of people have reached out and thousands of people have responded and stepped up."

Support systems

For McCoy, having a strong support system of colleagues and her family members has been a helpful tool in dealing with the stresses of the job.

"My significant other, my daughter, definitely take the back burner sometimes," McCoy said. "There’s days that I don’t see my daughter. When she wakes up, I’m at work, and when I get home, she’s already in bed. So sometimes, that does lead me to question my choices, but at the end of the day, this is what I’m doing and I love it and it’s not going to change."

veterinarian suicides

Asked what clients could do to help support veterinarians better, McCoy stressed the need for understanding.

"I think the biggest thing that the public can do is appreciate their veterinarian," McCoy said. "Be understanding if you call the office and they aren’t able to get you in. Sometimes we have to refer people to an emergency clinic. Thank your veterinarian, and even when the experience isn’t positive, and you have to euthanize your dog, being understanding that that’s really hard for them, too. It’s hard for us to help you end an animal’s suffering."

The bad days are tempered by better ones.

"A client sends flowers or a card, or a dog comes in that I’ve been working on for months and I found out what was wrong with it and I treated it and the dog’s doing awesome and the owner’s so happy," McCoy said. "So the good news is there’s a lot of positives, there’s a lot of amazing clients out there, and there's a lot of reminders every day of why this really is a great job, and I think that that’s something that’s important to focus on. And the bad days are just bad days. We gotta get through them."

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).