Anyone who has ever loved an animal knows the importance of veterinarians. They take care of our beloved pets throughout their lifespan and save lives on a regular basis. But veterinarians do more than just take care of our animals, so often they help the humans who love those animals too, guiding a family through the process of making difficult medical choices and the eventual end of life care that is a part of every pet’s journey. Veterinarians are vital to the health of our animals and thus to the health of their humans and our greater society too.
But too often, veterinarians are not given the support they need. A rarely spoken about mental health crisis is affecting our veterinarians, and it’s time to bring this issue out into the open. A study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association revealed that “approximately 1 in 11 veterinarians had serious psychological distress and 1 in 6 experienced suicidal ideation since leaving veterinary school.”1 Veterinarians have the highest suicide rate of any profession in the United States. 2 These alarming numbers are likely due to a number of factors, including: lack of work-life balance in a stressful field, financial stress, online bullying, and an overall stigma to reaching out for help. 3 Veterinarians are often empathetic people who deeply care about animals and their work. As Dr. Bill Wagner from Associated Veterinary Partners writes, “Empathy is a double-edged sword…The same personality and emotional characteristics that make veterinarians such good caregivers to their patients and clients also put their own mental health at risk.”
This mental health crisis is causing many veterinary professionals to consider leaving the field, which puts our entire veterinary health care system in a vulnerable place. “Without veterinarians, we have no pet care: This is a huge crisis for animal welfare. We must understand that human welfare is animal welfare, and animal welfare is human welfare,” says Danika Oriol-Morway, the U.S. Country Director FOUR PAWS International.
Recently, FOUR PAWS was able to bring awareness to this important issue when we participated in a panel at the renowned South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) entitled, “It’s 2032 and the Doctors are Gone”. Organized by Ogilvy, the global advertising agency, the panel aimed to tackle an overlooked and underreported issue of mental health in medicine and healthcare, particularly physicians and veterinarians. The lively discussion explored physicians’ mental health challenges, barriers to getting help, and how the health industry can provide better support services.
FOUR PAWS has offices in 15 countries and has 13 wild animal sanctuaries and employs or contracts with hundreds of veterinarians and animal caretakers every year. “The consensus of our conversation is that this industry is at a breaking point, along with everyone working in it,” Danika explained further, “the mental health of veterinarians and animal caretakers is extremely concerning for, without them, there is no animal welfare.”
What can you do to help? While many of the solutions to this heartbreaking problem require fixing systemic problems within our society, such as providing easier access to mental health resources and fighting for more affordable veterinary medical education 4, there are ways that each of us can help.
- Ask for help: If you or someone you know is struggling, please call: National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 988
- Spread awareness: Sharing information about the mental health crisis in the veterinary field can help save lives.
- Help reduce stigma around mental health issues: Shame and fear of negative consequences stops many people from reaching out for help. When attitudes change, medical professionals will be better able to get the help they need.
- Have patience and compassion: Be understanding of the fact that your veterinarians need work-life balance.
- Abstain from online bullying of veterinarians: If you are upset with the service you receive, it is best to talk with the clinic privately rather than starting an online slander campaign, which can ruin reputations and lives.
- Lend support: Sign our petition which advocates for better mental health protection for our veterinarians