September is National Suicide Awareness month, and it's alarming that veterinarians are three times more likely to commit suicide than the general public. While suicide is a growing problem in the US in general, veterinary medicine brings about many unique challenges that cause emotional stress for veterinarians.
Similar to physicians, veterinarians deal with depression, anxiety and burnout, but they also deal with the stress of personal finances to a greater degree. The average debt from veterinary school alone is about $152,000, and the average starting salary for a veterinarian last year was around $82,000. Some students may make far less in their first few years if they go on to do additional training for specialization. The high debt-to-income ratio causes problems getting home loans, lack of income to take much-needed vacations and difficulty starting a family.
Another stressor for veterinarians is the need to euthanize pets. One of the most important parts of the Veterinary Oath is that we will alleviate animal suffering. In the vast majority of cases that I see, the pet is being euthanized due to a chronic, terminal condition, such as cancer or heart disease, and its quality of life is suffering. In some cases, we have to euthanize a treatable condition due to financial constraints. Not treating the condition in these cases would cause death, often in an excruciating manner, and we do not want the animal to have to experience that. The entire process is not easy for the veterinarian, especially if they have been the primary care vet for that pet for years and have gotten to know them and cared for them as well.
As a business owner, I also deal with online cyberbullying and complaints on a weekly basis. While many are legitimate complaints, some are about things out of the veterinarian's control, such as an inability to pay for services. Veterinarians have to charge for our services so that the doors stay open and we can afford advanced equipment and staffing. We want to help as many pets as possible, and we are heartbroken when we are not able to fix a pet's condition, regardless of the reason. Our pets are our family, and I understand people being upset in a stressful situation. But these interactions happen on a regular basis and contribute to anxiety, depression and suicide within the profession.
The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has lots of information on the topic and resources to help veterinarians and others who are struggling with their emotional well-being and contemplating suicide. You can find support information at www.avma.org.
Emergency Veterinary Clinic of Tualatin
8250 SW Tonka St
Tualatin, OR 97052