Being a veterinarian sounds like a dream job, with plenty of opportunities to play with puppies or snuggle bearded dragons. And while it has its upsides, for sure, the job also comes with tough demands, ranging from dealing with angry pet owners to the emotional stress of having to euthanize animals.
Kristen Capen, who graduated from the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine in the spring, has seen the rough side of the profession. Euthanizing a beloved family pet is hard, she said, even if the animal is elderly or sick.
“I feel bad for the family, especially if it's an older dog, if there are kids, if the dad is there,” said Capen, who now works at an emergency animal hospital in Arizona. “If everyone in the room is crying, sometimes I also cry, out of basically empathy for what they're going through.”
Capen said the worst part of her job is when she has to euthanize an animal because the owner can't afford the care or isn't willing to take it on.
“It's awful. There's no real way to describe it,” she said. “It's not murder. But it feels bad, and sometimes it feels wrong, even though it's the only option.”
Experts say those stresses help explain why veterinarians have disproportionately high suicide rates. Female vets are three-and-a-half times as likely to die of suicide than the general population, and men are more than twice as likely, according to a study published this year by Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. The study also noted the total number of suicides among female veterinarians has been going up.
There are other complicating factors about the job. Being a veterinarian is one of those careers people dream of their whole lives; it can be disappointing to reach the goal and have it not look the way you imagined. Tuition at vet school is expensive, which means that people often graduate with loads of student debt. And vet salaries often don’t keep pace with it.
Besides the headache of dealing with distraught or angry clients, the business model can be difficult to handle, too. While a physician in private practice usually has somebody to handle billing, scheduling, and other tasks, vet practices are often so small that the doctor is managing all of it. And while even general practitioners can refer their patients to specialists, veterinarians are often left doing the job of radiologist, orthopedist, dentist, and every other specialist for their patients.
Acutely aware of these challenges — and the increased risk of suicide — vet schools are trying to help.
Athena Diesch-Chham has been a clinical veterinary social worker at the vet school at the University of Minnesota for the last seven years. She works with students on both the daily stresses of being in veterinary school and in preparing coping skills for the job. (Diesch-Chham worked with Kristen Capen until Capen graduated last year.)
“Some students are really struggling with — I hate to say small — but smaller stuff of ‘I'm having a really hard day and I just need to get my emotions out, get re-regulated and then get back into class,’” Diesch-Chham said.
But especially by their fourth year, vet school students are starting to get a real taste of the stresses of the job. That can mean dealing with things like a euthanasia procedure the vet doesn’t think needs to be done.
“What I have really started to tell our students is, ‘If you don't agree with it, don't do it,’ because what that does to your psyche and what that does to you emotionally, we're talking years of therapy,” she said.
Veterinarian Suzanne Tomasi, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, did one of the recent studies that looks at veterinarian suicides. She's also looked at ways to prevent suicide. Some of it is pretty obvious work-life balance stuff, she said, like trying to schedule shorter work shifts.
Other suggestions are more industry-specific ways of making it harder for people with suicidal thoughts to actually hurt themselves. Because of their jobs, veterinarians have access to the chemicals used to put animals down, and studies have found they often use the drugs on themselves.
“The other recommendation we've made is looking at checks and balances to help manage euthanasia solutions,” Tomasi said.
Other people are working on this, too. There's an organization of veterinarians that runs a support group on Facebook. It just announced a partnership with a company to provide veterinarians with online counseling.
This reporting is part of Call to Mind, our MPR initiative to foster new conversations about mental health.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or go to SpeakingofSuicide.com for more resources.