For animal lovers, having a career in veterinary medicine is a dream come true. However, everyone should be aware of the level of mental health problems associated with work-life balance, emotional stress, and financial health when entering into this field. Dr. Will McCauley, 35, had student debt and felt drained by his practice, which also involved euthanizing dogs and cats and being lambasted by owners for failing to meet their expectations, reported Melissa Chan of Time, an American weekly news magazine.
McCauley lamented, “I was tired in this miserable state of mind.” He did not kill himself in the summer of 2016 due to either fear or hope, deciding instead to quit his job later and to stop practicing his profession. McCauley is not alone, as there are other veterinarians who are suffering from mental health problems in their practice. While veterinary medicine is a noble profession, that does not mean it is not free of problems.
Surveys About the Mental Well-Being of Veterinarians
On behalf of the North American Veterinary Community (NAVC), a provider of world-class veterinary continuing education and development for the global veterinary healthcare community, market research firm LRW surveyed over 600 veterinary professionals, comprising of about 300 veterinarians and 300 technicians/nurses, cited Kristi Fender of Today’s Veterinary Business, NAVC’s official journal.
The survey found that only 55% of veterinary professionals reported high levels of satisfaction with their careers. When asked about the favorite parts of the job, the respondents cited the following: helping animals on a daily basis (77%), having meaning and purpose in their work (65%), continually learning/advancing my career (49%), and educating pet owners about wellness and preventive care (48%).
When asked about their frequent stressors in life, 76% said it was their student debt. Of those with student debt, veterinarians said they had an average balance of $174,122 while technicians/nurses reported $27,610. Other job stressors mentioned by the respondents were pressure to adhere to time restrictions per patient (63%), balancing work life with family (62%), staff turnover (61%), pet owners using the internet for information (60%), an addressing compassion fatigue/burnout in their practice (56%).
In another survey by Merck Animal Health, a division of Merck & Co., Inc., Kenilworth, N.J., USA (NYSE:MRK), and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), a not-for-profit association, veterinarians were most concerned about high stress levels (2019’s 92% versus 2017’s 90%), high student debt (91% versus 92%), and suicide (89% versus 80%) in the profession. Other concerns included the ability to retire or exit the profession (81% versus 80%), declining willingness to pay for vet care (71% versus 73%), and cyberbullying and vicious reviews (70% in 2019).
Regarding their well-being, 56% had a high level of well-being (flourishing; versus 2017’s 58.3%) while 34.6% answered “getting by,” compared to 2017’s 32.6%. Only 9.4% of veterinarians had a low level of well-being (suffering; versus 2017’s 9.1%). When asked if the veterinarians ever thought about killing themselves, 21.9% said yes (versus 24.9% in 2017) while 78.1% said no (versus 75.1%). When asked if they ever attempted to kill themselves, 2.4% said yes (versus 1.6%) while 97.6% said they have not attempted to do so (versus 98.4%).
The Stressors of Veterinarians
On a frequent basis, veterinarians usually find themselves euthanizing a pet with a treatable injury or illness because its owners can’t afford treatment, which may involve surgeries. McCauley—who is also an animal lover and owner of a pet dog, cat, and pig—stated, “You can say you’re going to be stoic and put it out of your mind and say it’s part of being a veterinarian.” However, as time passes, it will start to affect the person’s well-being.
Veterinarian in Rocklin, California Dr. Nicole McArthur, 46, left her profession twice as she felt agony after killing an animal, stating that there was a period of time when she played the role of “Dr. Death.” During the said period, McArthur said she sometimes had to kill three pets per day. She had dreams of helping animals when she was an aspiring veterinarian. However, McArthur’s dreams conflicted with the reality of ending the lives of pets even if they can be surgically treated.
Another stressful aspect of being a veterinarian is constantly being requested to offer free services or provide medications. And if they don’t comply, the owners would cyberbully or harass the veterinarian. McCauley noted, “When you’re not able to offer those free services and medications, you turn into the bad guy.”
How Are Veterinarians and Veterinary Staff Coping With the Pandemic?
Veterinarians earn a living thanks to the financial success of their business. But with the pandemic causing economic and social disruptions, veterinary clinics are also not spared from the repercussions of the crisis. When veterinary services were granted essential status during the COVID-19 outbreak, the veterinary field vowed to limit non-essential procedures, meaning ventilators and other protective equipment could be conserved for human hospitals. Alberta veterinarian Dr. Brian Jones said, “We weren’t sure how many gloves we would have and how much oxygen we would have.”
Hence, veterinarians have to voluntarily reduce the supply of veterinary procedures and services in an attempt to minimize the use of medical supplies. Dr. Jones said reducing the number of staff working each shift and for long hours has contributed to “high emotional wear and tear,” admitting that he is concerned about worker burnout. Dr. Jones attempted to apply to government programs such as the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy and the work-sharing program. His practice did not qualify for the former, though his business may have qualified for the latter.
Nevertheless, Dr. Jones said the stress and time spent applying for programs affected his staff’s mental health. Barraged with disappointing results, his staff were not able to maximize the benefits of the program. On the other hand, some veterinarians are financially stable enough due to the consistent demand for their services. But there is a need to acknowledge the emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
To help manage and address the mental health risks the pandemic has brought, it is recommended for veterinarians to take mental health breaks and to check in with their team and supervisor, advised Roxanne Hawn of the American Animal Hospital Association, a non-profit organization for companion animal veterinary hospitals. Veterinary teams can also help their members identify their personal triggers and allow them to share the things that bother the team in times of stress. Erin Allen, LSW, a social worker with the Argus Institute at Colorado State University’s (CSU) veterinary teaching hospital, explained, “It never helps to have that come out sideways. That requires a whole lot more cleanup!”
Veterinary medicine is not always about helping kittens and puppies. Veterinarians also have to deal with the emotional impacts of their profession. Hence, it is important to provide veterinary teams access to mental health support to help them deal with distressing situations.