Veterinarians group fighting 'staggering' statistics on death by suicide in profession

If you’re a veterinarian dealing with depression, there’s an international group that wants to help you, and also wants the general public to understand the kinds of challenges veterinarians face.

'Somebody you know and potentially work with every day has thought about suicide,' says P.E.I. vet

Pets are like family members, and that can lead to a high-stress work environment for veterinarians. (Shutterstock)

If you're a veterinarian dealing with depression, there's an international group that wants to help you, and also wants the general public to understand the kinds of challenges veterinarians face.

Not One More Vet (NOMV) started in 2014 with the death by suicide of Sophia Yin, a prominent California-based veterinarian and author. Its mission was to destigmatize mental health problems among veterinarians and offer help.

It grew rapidly — NOMV is now active in dozens of countries — because the need is great. The organization said vets are 2.5 times more likely than the general public to die by suicide. One in 10 have contemplated suicide, along with one in five veterinary technicians, NOMV reported.

"The statistics are quite staggering," Dr. Lesley Steele, a member of NOMV and owner of a number of veterinary clinics in the Maritimes, told Island Morning host Mitch Cormier.

"Somebody you know and potentially work with every day has thought about suicide."

Debt, long hours, and unrealistic expectations

The particular challenge of being a vet begins at graduation.

New graduates can be carrying hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, and the profession they are entering will often pay only enough to cover loan payments and a basic lifestyle.

That can become crippling if they face unexpected expenses, said Steele.

'Veterinarians are accused of not caring sometimes,' says Dr. Lesley Steele. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

And the job itself comes with a lot of pressure.

People care for their pets as family members, and come to veterinarians with high and sometimes unrealistic expectations, Steele said.

"Veterinarians are accused of not caring sometimes when they present a bill or a fee charged to clients that is beyond what the client can afford," she said.

"Use language like, 'You don't care,' or, 'My animal's going to die because you don't care.' We're human beings. We take that home with us at night. We take that home and take that to bed with us at night."

'Terrible, inappropriate and often untruthful things'

In recent years, Steele said, social media has become another issue; a way for unhappy customers to take out their frustrations in public.

Vets are not the only profession being attacked on social media, but they have the added frustration of not being able to defend themselves due to client confidentiality rules.

"Terrible, inappropriate and often untruthful things can be said about veterinarians, and we don't have the ability to tell our side of the story," said Steele.

"All of those things together, you know, along with a job that we're often working 24 hours a day. If we have to do on-call and provide emergency services, it all takes a toll."

New approaches at university

It's a problem that's been recognized at the Atlantic Veterinary College in Charlottetown, and is being addressed directly.

"While I recognize we have big challenges, I also see that we've come a long way," said Dr. Heather Gunn MacQuillan, assistant dean of clinical and professional programming at AVC.

"I remember when I went to that school, this stuff wasn't discussed at all."

And they are doing more than talking about it at AVC. Addressing the problem has been built right into the curriculum.

Students take courses to help them deal with the financial realities they will face on graduation, how to effectively communicate with clients, how to build resilience, and how and when to seek help when these strategies fail.

'I've walked in the shoes of depression'

MacQuillan teaches her students with the voice of experience.

"One of the reasons I'm passionate about veterinary wellness is I've been there," she said.

'I teach in a place of vulnerability,' says Dr. Heather Gunn McQuillan. (Natalia Goodwin/CBC )

"I've walked in the shoes of depression and I've used tools around self-care and mindfulness. I lecture on this and I'm very open with this. I teach in a place of vulnerability because I think it's important for my students to know that it's not all rainbows and puppy dogs, that the reality of veterinary medicine is it is difficult and it is challenging and you are going to have many, many dark days."

While teaching resilience is important, said Steele, the point also has to be made that there comes a point where the behaviour of clients is simply not acceptable.

"I've been practising since 1997, and I can tell you there's definitely been a change in expectations," said Steele. "We have a right to demand respect and better treatment from clients."

Veterinarians who need help or are looking for more information can find it on the NOMV website. Those in immediate crisis can call the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

Anyone needing emotional support, crisis intervention or help with problem solving in P.E.I. can contact The Island Helpline at 1-800-218-2885, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

For more information about mental health services on P.E.I., find resources from Health PEI here, or from the Canadian Mental Health Association P.E.I. Division here.

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