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Veterinarians Face Unique Issues That Make Suicide One of the Profession’s Big Worries

8 minute read

Dr. Will McCauley had just finished his shift at a small Dallas animal clinic when he went home, fed his pet pot-bellied pig and then held a loaded handgun to his head.

The 33-year-old veterinarian was wracked with student debt and worn down by the daily demands at work, which included euthanizing dogs and cats and being vilified by pet owners for not meeting their expectations. “I was tired in this miserable state of mind,” he says. “It just drained me so much.” For reasons he attributes to either fear or hope, McCauley didn’t kill himself that summer day in 2016, and he quit his job later that week and stopped practicing.

“I knew I had to make a change,” McCauley says. “I was dead on the inside.”

The job challenges that more than 70,000 veterinarians in the U.S. face have led to disproportionately high suicide rates, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Nearly 400 veterinarians died by suicide between 1979 and 2015, according to a CDC study published in January that analyzed more than 11,000 veterinarian death records in that timeframe. The study also found that female veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely to kill themselves than members of the general population. “It really can be classified as an epidemic in my profession,” says McCauley, who is now 36 and working for a trade association in Washington, D.C.

Suicide rates are increasing in nearly every demographic, age group and geographic area, and they are the highest they’ve been since World War II, according to federal data. While researchers have long known that doctors are more likely to die by suicide than the general population—partially due to issues like depression, anxiety and burnout—veterinarians face a set of unique stressors. Their patients can’t speak or tell them what’s wrong, much like babies can’t communicate with their doctors. But unlike pediatricians, veterinarians frequently find themselves having to euthanize a patient with a treatable injury or illness because its caretaker can’t afford the remedy, which might include costly surgeries. “You can say you’re going to be stoic and put it out of your mind and say it’s part of being a veterinarian,” says McCauley, an animal lover who has a dog and a cat in addition to his pig, “but the reality is over time, that weighs on you.”

Some vets are also tasked with putting down large groups of otherwise healthy animals due to overcrowding at shelters, although a recent New York Times analysis found pet euthanasia rates have drastically fallen in big cities in recent years, partially due to the decrease in the number of stray animals entering shelters as a result of successful spay and neutering campaigns.

"It's not all puppies and kittens and wonderful experiences. There's a lot of pain involved."

Dr. Nicole McArthur, a 46-year-old veterinarian in Rocklin, Calif., left the profession twice because of the agony she felt after killing an animal. “There was a period of time when I was essentially Dr. Death,” she says, adding that she’d sometimes have to put down three pets a day. “At the time, I was like, somebody is punishing me for something I’ve done in another life.” The dreams she had to help animals as an aspiring veterinarian quickly clashed with the harsh reality of having to take their lives even when they could have been surgically treated. She quit the field most recently in 2013 and returned in 2015. “We go through veterinary school with the idea that we’re going to save lives,” McArthur says. “To have to turn around and push a plunger is difficult.”

Another soul-crushing aspect of the job that most other health professionals don’t have to deal with, veterinarians say, is constantly being asked to perform services or give out medications for free and then being cyberbullied or harassed if they don’t. In 2018, Americans spent more than $72 billion on their pets, and more than $18 billion was for vet care, according to the American Pet Products Association (APPA), a trade group. While some pet insurance plans may ease sudden expenses, only a small portion of pet owners opt to buy it. Pets live in nearly 85 million homes in the U.S., but only 2 million pets were insured in 2018, industry figures show. McCauley says he’d be asked to waive vet fees at least once a day. “When you’re not able to offer those free services and medications, you turn into the bad guy. They go online and they make you into the devil because you didn’t treat their cat for free,” he says. “It’s a horrible position that veterinarians are put in.” A 2014 survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) found one in five veterinarians were either cyberbullied by pet owners, who would write nasty reviews online or threaten their business, or knew a colleague who had been. “We have this tremendous fear that the mob is going to come after us online,” McArthur says.

There are also financial struggles, particularly for young people entering the field. Veterinary students in the U.S. graduated in 2018 with an average of $150,000 in debt, according to the AVMA. Yet data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the median annual wage for veterinarians in 2018 was $93,830, and starting salaries are significantly much lower. When Dr. Molly McAllister, 43, of Portland, Oregon, first entered the field in 2004, she took a veterinarian job for $22,000 a year with $90,000 in debt from just veterinary school. “I was really well-educated on how to take care of animals. I was not well-educated on how to take care of myself,” she says.

While there is never a single cause of suicide, the myriad of risk factors can add up. A survey of more than 11,000 U.S. veterinarians in 2014 found 9% had current serious psychological distress, 31% had experienced depressive episodes, and 17% had experienced suicidal ideation since leaving veterinary school. The data suggests nearly one in 10 U.S. veterinarians might suffer from serious psychological distress, yet only half are seeking help, says Dr. Jen Brandt, the AVMA’s director of wellbeing and diversity initiatives. Now, industry leaders are trying to change that.

On Thursday, during National Suicide Prevention Week, Banfield Pet Hospital, one of the nation’s largest employers of veterinary professionals, announced a new training and awareness program for its more than 17,000 workers as well as a plan to close more than 1,000 of its clinics nationwide for a two-hour workshop to discuss mental health by early next year. As part of the training, Banfield is launching a 30-minute online course that teaches employees how to recognize warning signs of suicide among colleagues and the best ways to help them. The training course, which begins with a self assessment, will be available free online for anyone in the veterinary industry by Jan. 6, 2020.

Lisa Stewart-Brown, a clinical social worker who developed the training, says she hopes the widespread discussions will help break the stigma associated with talking about mental health and offer at least one solution to a complex and multifaceted problem. “If we can teach people what it looks like when someone is in emotional distress, and we can teach them how to break through and connect with that person emotionally and compassionately and lead them to professional help, I know we will help,” she says. “It’s not all puppies and kittens and wonderful experiences. There’s a lot of pain involved.”

Banfield’s program is one of many being designed for struggling veterinarians and being implemented across veterinary hospitals, schools and communities nationwide. The AVMA also offers a similar free one-hour online training course that helps veterinarians identify and refer at-risk colleagues. Tens of thousands of veterinarians have also found solace in Facebook support groups. In 2014, McArthur, the California vet who struggled with euthanasia, founded Not One More Vet, an online veterinary support group, days after the suicide of Sophia Yin, a popular and pioneering veterinarian who specialized in animal behaviors. Friends and colleagues have said that Yin, 48, who lived in California, may have been overwhelmed with personal and financial struggles and may have had trouble maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Her death had a ripple effect in the veterinary world and sparked widespread discussions about mental health and self-care. “She was the epitome of what we all strive to be—professional, put together, well-respected, intelligent and seemingly happy,” McArthur says. “To find out that she felt there was no other escape was very sad and shocking to me.”

Not One More Vet now has more than 16,000 veterinarian members worldwide, mostly from the U.S., which McArthur says signals the growing need for help. “There is so much comfort in knowing that you are not alone,” she says.

If you or someone you know may be contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741741 to reach the Crisis Text Line. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental health provider.

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