It is still a taboo subject but on which we, as a human collective and veterinary profession, must be more open.
One in six vets has considered suicide. Veterinarians are almost three times more likely to kill themselves than the general public.
We have a debt to income ratio of at least 2: 1, otherwise 4: 1 for those who practice in rural areas. One in five of us will or have been the victim of cyberbullying attacks.
A few years ago, one of my beloved mentors committed suicide.
Most veterinarians began practicing their lifelong profession when they were young. Growing up, I spent every summer with my grandparents on our family farm in Ohio.
One summer evening we were walking along the bean field when we noticed a young fawn with its paw stuck in the fence. I went back to the shed, took some pliers, and helped free the baby deer. I remember looking her in the eye and thinking, I bet she knows I’m trying to help her. It was then that I knew I wanted to spend my life helping save animals.
The journey to becoming a veterinarian is no easy feat. You need to have impeccable grades in college, full years of prerequisite courses, be involved in community service and extracurricular activities, and have experience in a veterinary clinic before you are even accepted into a veterinary school.
Once accepted into a veterinary school, students then live an additional four years in addition to their college education, which prepares them to become a veterinarian. Usually our education after high school graduation is between seven and eight years.
After obtaining the diploma from the veterinary school, we have the possibility of doing internships, residencies to specialize or enter directly into general medicine.
This week alone I have worked on goats, pigs, alpacas, cattle, horses, dogs and cats.
I have performed multiple types of surgeries on multiple species, treated allergic skin conditions, managed heart disease and congestive heart failure, diagnosed and formulated treatment plans for cancer, and performed extensive internal medicine workups.
I have been with clients as they were going through the worst day of their lives, helping them make difficult decisions and leaving room for their grief. I have also been able to help clients adjust to life with new puppies or kittens and develop vaccination programs that match their lifestyle needs.
I am always in a state of balance between my education, my years of practice and reading the latest research to practice better medicine for my patients.
I always focus on the well-being of patients, advocating for their needs and respecting my vet-client-patient relationships.
There are many reasons why vets have a higher suicide rate than any other profession. Personally, I believe it goes much further than the fact that we are indebted for hundreds of thousands of dollars for the love of our profession.
The profession is designed to attract people who are empathetic, compassionate, highly intelligent, motivated, and perfectionists.
We feel a call to serve and be the best we can be, always. The application process alone eliminates anyone who does not fit that mold. I am a deeply empathetic and compassionate person who feels deeply with my clients and patients. I strive not to have an ego that prevents me from asking for help. If I cannot figure out what is wrong, I will research and contact the specialists who can help me better help my patients and clients.
I know most of my profession looks like me.
But then add the other factors that compromise our quality of life.
When things go wrong, or sometimes everything goes well and nature always takes over and you can’t save the animal.
When your family and loved ones are mad at you for being on call again during another holiday, weekend, or game and can’t be there for those who love you the most.
When you get divorced because, for the world, you just can’t leave your job at work.
When you’ve done too many euthanasia in a week.
When there have been too many online bullies trying to ruin your reputation.
When the reason you entered the profession becomes the reason you have to leave this world.
Sometimes things don’t go well despite our best intentions.
Sometimes, no, always patients will die. They were born into this world and they must also leave it.
Sometimes our desire for perfectionism means we’re so invested in our work that it literally bleeds all over the place. In our homes, in our friendships and in our loved ones.
Sometimes we are terribly intimidated and harassed, but because of professionalism, responsibility and disregarding our code of ethics, we cannot even defend ourselves.
Instead, we sit back and hope that people who read what bullies say will realize that injured people hurt others and that what they are saying is not true. Or, if it is true, that they understand that we are also human.
And sometimes we practice such cuteness in helping our furry friends through that we then extend it to ourselves.
September is Suicide Awareness Month. If you require assistance, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-8255.
Danielle Carey, doctor of veterinary medicine, is an associate veterinarian at the Walla Walla Animal Clinic. Contact her at 509-525-6111.