Supporting Mental and Emotional Health in Veterinary Medicine

You may or may not be aware of the recent events that have occurred within my profession that past several weeks.  There have been quite a few incredibly talented veterinarians that have ended their lives by suicide. Some seem to be surprised by the fact that one in six veterinarians have contemplated suicide in their career.  Let me peel back the curtain and share with you some of the concerns within my profession.

We entered this profession because we genuinely love and care for animals.  We couldn’t see ourselves doing anything else but to better serve and protect the welfare of animals.  It is perhaps one of the most selfless careers on the planet where we dedicate our lives in treating species other than humans.   We are invest our emotions heavily with our patients and at the same time, we are financially burdened with a large student loan debt (the average student loan debt with just veterinary school is somewhere near $300,000).  We spend countless sleepless nights worrying about our patients, answering emails from our friends, having people that we barely know send us a direct message on social media about their pets, and sometimes fail to set appropriate boundaries for ourselves.  Why?  Because again, we love what we do and not everyone has the financial means to provide the quality of care they wish to provide their animals.  So we keep going and keep going.  

We are living challenging times during this pandemic where people have succumbed to the covid-19 virus.  Pets have been shuffled from home to home as their pet owners have died from the virus.  On top of that, that has been a massive uptake in pet adoption as many of us felt isolated and lonely.  And a pet seems to have filled that much needed void.  That has added an even larger strain on an already strained veterinary health care team.  Appointment wait times have doubled and curbside care has had its challenges (although much better than where it was just a year ago). Some annoyed pet owners have taken advantage of social media to allow it to amplify their toxic and vulgar messages about my colleagues.  It has created a nasty playground full of cyberbullying.  Their character gets broken.  Their compassion gets fatigued.  And their ability to mentally refuel their passion runs on empty.  

And why am I providing you all with this information?  Because our profession is in a crisis. With a shortage of veterinarians and an increase demand in pet care, our profession is working hard to help battle the compassion fatigue that many veterinarians and support staff are feeling. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has many useful resources online to help the profession with mental health. A wonderful closed facebook group, “Not One More Vet” is a safe space for veterinarians and veterinary support team members to share their candid emotions about how they are feeling.  With over 27,000 members it also allows fellow colleagues to offer each other support they need and provide crisis management immediately to those who have ill thoughts against themselves. 

I get asked every day, “It must be so much fun to see such cute puppies and kittens every day!”.   As if that was the case.  Yes, we yearn and love those visits so we get those beautiful serotonin, oxytocin and melatonin releases that are much needed.  And it is because for every “puppy/kitten appointment” your veterinarian examines, they usually end up seeing 2-3 end of life care situations.  It is an emotional rollercoaster.  It is an incredibly rewarding position but it is something that we need to discuss more of in this country.  It is wonderful that mental health has removed a negative stigma as if it’s a bad word.  It is not! 

Surrounding yourself with REAL people and not “yes” people is what matters in life.  Your inner circle will be there for you through up and downs.  Yes people may falsely elevate you and put you in an even worse head space than you may already be feeling. 

Here are some helpful tips our profession does to get through the mental hardships.  These apply to anyone’s career. 

  • Changed mindset.  Working in the veterinary field is all about teamwork.  Knowing that “collaboration saves lives” truly helps provide the team with purpose, meaning and it recenters the “why” behind what we do every day as veterinary professionals.   
  • Reach out. You are not alone regardless of how “isolated” one may feel.  Check in with your veterinarian and tell them why they and their team are amazing.  Send them a hand-written thank you note to express gratitude.  It goes a long way!  Keeping in touch with people, especially face-to-face (e.g., with friends, family, teachers, coworkers, clergy members) and engaging in activities that you used to enjoy (even though you feel you no longer enjoy them) can be helpful. Caring for a pet can get you outside and give you a sense of well-being. I recommend playing with your pets a lot.  We as veterinarians get so caught up in “doctor mode” that we tend to forget what it feels like to be in “pet parent” mode.  And it’s everything! 
  • Exercise Aim for 10 to 30 minutes of exercise per day, whether it’s walking your dog, doing yoga at home, biking, walking, etc. 
  • Push yourself. Pick up a hobby or sport that you used to enjoy. Binge-watch a TV show you used to love or a dive back into a book series you always used to read.  Turn that vision board into a reality by doing some of those things you have written down for yourself. 
  • Please be sure to show gratitude towards your veterinarian and their team.  It is not an easy job and “thank you” are two of the most powerful words we all could use now.  Remember, we are on the same side of the exam table.  We love your furkids just as much as you do! 

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