Dr. Andraya Cole – 7 May 2021
Mental Health Matters
This is a heavy one. Mental health matters, profoundly. I want to preface this by saying I can only speak to what I know from personal experience and research.
We all want a life full of purpose in our relationships and our work. We want to be seen and we want to be loved. When we are stripped of any of those things, life can just seem numb and downright not worth it. Most of us go into vet med because we’re driven to help those who cannot advocate for themselves. We do it because we feel drawn to work with compassion and empathy every day. We do not do it for the money. It’s not about leisure time or because we weren’t skilled enough to be in human medicine. More than most professions I can think of, we do the work with pride and purpose.
Our profession is hard. And we often don’t afford ourselves the same compassion and empathy we pour into our patients daily. In previous posts, I’ve explored the topics of burnout, compassion fatigue, and perfectionism. Witnessing trauma and death regularly. Asking if we’ve done enough. Knowing we’ll have to experience it all again the next day. All of these factors may tip the scale against us, and in some cases, a life is cut short.
In the meantime, we also counsel the accompanying heartbreak of owners and staff. We often carry the weight of their trauma and grief home. Our abilities and knowledge are questioned (as if we don’t do that to ourselves enough). Sometimes we’re told that we don’t care. We defend the cost and worth of our services, only to be told we’re only in this for the money. All while being overworked and often in crippling debt. Usually providing services at low or no cost because we just want to practice medicine and help our patients. The guilt that we feel all of this because after all this is the profession we chose and we should be stronger, never make mistakes, and not let it all get to us.
The impact is devastating, and the statistics show that in stark relief. Female veterinarians are 3.5 times as likely than the general population to commit suicide and males, 2.1 times. Those are astounding numbers. Since being out of school, 1 in 11 veterinarians report having experienced serious psychological distress and 1 in 6 report having suicidal ideation.
This is a public health crisis…no, it’s an epidemic.
It Gets Personal
I am two years out of veterinary school, and I can tell you that I have struggled with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts in that timeframe. In the same two years since graduation, we have lost several colleagues to suicide. One was a classmate of mine. Someone I had regular conversations with. Someone whose heart and purpose for this work was reflected in mine…not so different than the colleagues I see daily.
I find myself reacting to these situations in two ways. I have that familiar reflex of, “I must do more” and “I need to take action”. I’ve poured hours in to learn about our profession’s crisis, trying to change the culture in my clinic, and hell, even getting a master’s degree revolving around the subject. But I have been met with resistance along the way; colleagues who don’t want to talk about it, management that drag their feet or even actively protest my efforts, and the general public who seem either oblivious to this crisis or that they just don’t care.
Even trained mental health professionals aren’t educated in this issue and I’ve found myself explaining to my personal therapist what I do, and the stressors involved. With all of this, my spirits can get quickly beaten down to “there is nothing I can do” or “it won’t ever change”. Some days it seems like veterinary suicide has become another tragedy that I scroll through on my social media page, bury a little deeper down and keep moving, desensitized.
Where We go from Here
But this isn’t going away. We need to do better for ourselves, for our colleagues, and for our profession. What it means to be a doctor needs to be humanized- to talk about the times cases follow us home at night and to not be ashamed of saying we need a break. Be provided with & learning to use the tools to defend ourselves from clients who question our abilities and morals – with management support.
There is an urgent need to be trained to see our perceived failures in new ways that allow us to grow. Clinics must create a culture that supports a community centered on wellness in their business models. The stakes are too high not to.
All of this can uphold our profession with dignity and create an environment where quality medicine is practiced and where people want to stay. It needs to. We are a profession that saves lives, and now it’s time to save our own.
You are NOT Alone
If reading this has triggered a response, please do not hesitate to reach out for support either to us: firstname.lastname@example.org, Not One More Vet (NOMV), or contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. Please remember that you are valued, you are loved, and all that you are & do matters!