On-the-job emotional stresses at least doubling average suicide rates in veterinarians

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Suicide has become an epidemic among veterinarians.

A study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds the rate is 2 to 3.5 times higher among veterans than the general population.

FOX4 talked with a veterinarian in Kansas and one in Missouri about why they’re under so much stress and how veterinarians from around the world are coming together online to help each other cope.

Shawnee veterinarian Dr. Sadie Scott has worked in veterinary medicine for more than 20 years, first as an assistant and a vet tech, before following her passion through eight years of veterinary school.

“It’s eight years total of college, and it is a grueling experience and you have to be so dedicated and determined,” Scott said.

But following that passion comes with several serious challenges. She said those combined difficulties, over time, can lead to overwhelming stress and depression, even to suicide. One of the biggest challenges is financial.

“Most people are graduating with around $200,000 of debt right now," Scott said. "And when you go out and you start that career that you’ve been working so hard to start and you can’t pay your bills, and you can’t pay your student loans, for many people the financial stress is just more than what they can handle."

There’s also the compassion fatigue that comes with giving bad news to owners who love their pets. It’s even harder for the vet when they know the owner contributed to the health problem.

“You have to share the news with them: why their animal is sick, what’s going on with their animal, the cost of care for their animal, prognosis," Scott said. "You’re sharing all of this information and in that whole conversation you know that animal is sick because that owner didn’t do the right thing by vaccinating or preventing heart worms."

Then there’s what she calls emotional whiplash.

“So I may be dealing with that woman who is just devastated because of the options she has, and my next appointment is an 8-week-old puppy, and I have to immediately switch moods. You know they don’t want me walking in with the heaviness of the conversation I just had. They want me to be excited,” Scott said.

And the job requires that veterinarians have immediate access to drugs that can sedate and euthanize animals.

“When you’ve been told three times that day that you don’t have compassion because you charge too much, when you’ve been raked over the coals on social media -- there was a veterinarian a few years ago, I think in Korea, at a high kill shelter," Scott said. "And the media pegged her as Doctor Death, and she committed suicide.”

Scott has also been raked over the coals online: cyber-bullied twice within six months. Once by a woman who gave her a zero rating, although they had never even met.

“When I read that review, I was devastated. Devastated. For somebody that had never stepped a foot into my clinic – had been to the previous owner years ago – and then shared all this misinformation about me and my services. Devastated. Devastated,” she said.

Scott felt she had no recourse, so she shared her experience online.

“What I chose to do is I shared her review and my response on Not One More Vet," she said. "And that’s when the warriors really came out.”

Not One More Vet is an online Facebook group for veterinarians. It has more than 20,000 members from around the world and averages about 130 posts a day. It was started about five years ago after pioneering veterinarian Dr. Sophia Yin took her own life. St. Louis veterinarian Dr. Abby Whiting is on it’s board.

“A veterinarian friend of mine started thinking of how alone she felt and how sad it was that we had lost someone as special as Dr. Yin," Whiting said. "So she got together with some friends and they were commiserating, and they realized that a whole lot of vets feel this way. And on that night, Not One More Vet was born."

Whiting said veterinarians affect our lives more than we know.

“Every time we eat, every time we sit down to dinner with our families, the produce and the animal products that are put on our plate were made safe for us to eat by a veterinarian,” she said.

Both doctors agree on what needs to change.

“Conversation needs to change, talking about it, making it OK for these Type A, determined individuals to say, you know what? I need help," Scott said.

She would also like vet schools to offer more training in how to deal with managing the emotions of their human clients.

And perhaps most important of all: be kind.

“Remember that your veterinarian is human. They’re a person at the end of the day and before you jump onto the computer, think, ‘Is this something I would say to this person if they were face to face with me?’ and if not, maybe you should rethink it,” Whiting said.

They both say if you have a good relationship with your veterinarian, thank them and their staff for the work they do because they're the people who make it possible for our pets to bring us so much joy.

“We are here because we love your animals. We want to help you have the most amazing life with your animals for as long as possible,” Scott said.

FOX4 asked both Kansas State and MU’s colleges of Veterinary Medicine about how they address these issues in their programs.

K-State’s College of Veterinary Medicine employs two licensed counselors who said they discuss aspects of well-being including suicide rates within the profession.

They also offer therapy sessions to students and provide education presentations within the college curriculum about managing stress, maintaining well-being and other topics. They also schedule regular activities designed to improve well-being for students in the college.

A spokesperson for the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine said the school doesn't address the suicide rate as part of the curriculum, but does address the issue during first-year orientation and as part of well-being seminars and programming.

The college has a full-time psychologist who offers individual counseling, clinical consultation and outreach seminars to students, faculty and staff on mental health topics.

A number of MU faculty and staff have also received training through the university about responding to students in crisis, including assessing suicidality and referring to appropriate resources.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or click on this link for online chat. In a crisis you can also text "HOME" to 741741

There are also these resources from the American Veterinary Medical Association:

Suicide prevention training

Addressing work and compassion fatigue

Financial planning advice for veterinarians

Kansas Veterinary Medical Association personal wellness

Not One More Vet: An online support group for veterinarians

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