By far, one of the greatest draws to veterinary care is empathy for the animals we encounter every day. Whether it's our household pets, our livestock, or the animals conserved in zoos, it's usually the people with the most empathy for these creatures who spend years of their lives training to care for them.
Empathy is, unfortunately, a double-edged sword. While that concern and care for the well-being of animals is a driving force in our lives as veterinarians, it's also a source of immense stress, frustration, sadness, and more. Content warning for the rest of this post: suicidal ideation and depression will be discussed.
On top of that, being a care provider often means delivering bad news, and that bad news is almost always received during emotionally-charged moments. Angry pet parents are a fact of life for vets, and it's hard to maintain a thick skin when you're already feeling bad about the situation.
The Unique Stress of Veterinary Care
Vets have to handle a lot in their careers.
Providing care for animals is one thing. It has dangers that human medical care doesn't – after all, very few humans are equipped with knives on their limbs and a willingness to snap and bite – and many of the medical issues animals experience aren't necessarily easily treatable.
Media has produced an image of a doctor as a miracle worker, able to basically bring people back from the dead, which is often unrealistic and results in undue suffering to patients. Veterinary care is, in some ways, even worse. People expect miracles, but those miracles are almost never available.
Whether it's delivering the bad news about a cancer diagnosis, a rapidly descending quality of life for a beloved pet, or a financially-ruinous illness for a livestock farm, the people we need to engage with are rarely in a good state of mind. Standard veterinary check-ups for pets are a small part of what we end up doing as vets, and that's not even considering specialty care.
Financial pressures hurt, as well. As devastating as it is for a pet owner to know they don't have the money to treat their beloved animal's issues, it's so much worse being on the inside, seeing it day in and day out, and knowing just how much of those costs come from greedy companies, and how many treatable ailments are simply priced out.
Specialty vets have it worse. A veterinary oncologist is going to be delivering bad news as often as not, emergency and critical care vets end up fighting to save their patients and don't always win, and veterinary neurologists handle some of the most heart-wrenching cases in animal care.
Patient care and dealing with animal owners are far from the only sources of stress on vets, either.
There's an ongoing veterinary shortage across the country. Patient care suffers when there's not enough attention to go around, wait times end up much higher than they should be, and vets work long hours to do all they can and still never feel like it's enough. On top of that:
Pet ownership is increasing, and there's an estimated 33% increase in pet healthcare spending in the next decade.
Much of that spending ends up going to medicine producers and equipment manufacturers, not care providers.
Demand for new vets means an estimated 41,000 new vets will be needed, but projections show a shortage of 15,000 by 2030.
Student loans for vets are high, and salaries aren't good enough to cover them. Veterinary school takes years and is an intense program, and leaves many vets with excessive debt to pay off in their professional life. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the average student loan debt for veterinary graduates who complete a four-year program was $186,430 in 2021.
Meanwhile, pay for vets lags behind other medical professionals. Vet techs average $30-$45k per year, while full-fledged vets range from $70-$140k annually. It's difficult enough to afford our own rent, healthcare, care for our animals, and other expenses on that kind of salary, let alone additional debts, cost of living, inflation, and all the other financial pressures.
Many vet roles aren't very well respected. You need look no further than the debate over renaming vet techs to veterinary nurses (and the absolutely rancid disrespect thrown at vets for it) to see that.
All of this combines into an extremely stressful and difficult role to work when all you want is to help the animals you love live their best lives.
All is Not Lost
There's hope, and we're not just talking about ourselves here. All of those pressures are real, and they're challenges to face and overcome, and they shouldn't be minimized. But help is out there. Any vet struggling with depression, suicidal ideation, anger, or other emotional dysregulation, can find the help they need.
We've put together a list of eight mental health services you can look into. While there's never an easy solution, and not all options are perfect for everyone, there's something here for you. Never think your troubles are too small or that other people have it worse; you deserve the help you need.
Not One More Vet was created in 2014 after the suicide of Dr. Sophia Yin, a world-renowned and well-respected vet whose death cast ripples throughout the veterinary community. Their goal is to provide education, resources, and support to veterinarians around the world and to address the endemic issue of suicide in the profession.
Through their website, you can access a global directory of crisis lines and help organizations. Vets in financial hardship can apply for grants to cover housing and other expenses and can help with practices damaged by natural disasters, as well as other crises. They also offer the Lifeboat service, an asynchronous mentorship system where other vets help with the challenges and problems you face.
Not One More Vet is open to anyone adjacent to the veterinary profession, including vets, vet techs, vet nurses, assistants, and support staff.
SAMHSA, the U.S. Government's Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, provides crisis lines and assistance for anyone undergoing severe depression, suicidal ideation, or other mental health crises. As of 2020, the government has approved a three-digit equivalent to 911 for mental health crises, 988, which can be called or texted. They also offer a live chat for those who can't or don't want to use a phone for their issues.
While the national lifeline isn't specific to vets, it's one of the largest, most well-funded, and best-established sources of assistance for anyone experiencing a crisis. They also have grants available for those in need of assistance.
Shanti is a local social support network for racial justice, equity, social connections, and peer support, located in San Francisco, though they work with in-need vets across North America.
"Shanti's Veterinary Mental Health Initiative (VMHI) provides mental health support services to veterinarians and veterinary staff by experienced doctorate-level clinicians. Our professionally facilitated peer support groups and individual one-to-one sessions address mental health concerns tailored to the veterinary medicine community. Since the launch of VMHI in 2021, we have directly engaged with more than 200 veterinarians and veterinary technicians from across the U.S. and Canada."
They aren't a crisis center or a therapist, but they can provide support and a peer community for those in need. It's a support group primarily, with a variety of evidence-based practices to help build coping skills and encourage more positive mental health outcomes.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has a Get Help page that provides links to resources for everything from crisis lines to training for employers, along with state and local resources, national associations, and additional paths to well-being. It's a relatively sparse page, but new resources are added occasionally, and there are avenues to get help elsewhere on the site for members.
The AVMA also hosts chats and social discussions between its members, which can be a way for vets to network with one another, build social support networks, and generally assist one another. It's not standardized or formatted for depression support or mental health, but given the prominence of the topics in vet circles, it's bound to come up from time to time. If nothing else, even knowing that your feelings are legitimate and that you aren't alone can help.
AVMA also provides QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer) training for helpers and assistants to learn how to identify those who may be suicidal, open up a conversation, and refer them to the appropriate resources as necessary, depending on their situation.
1 Life Connected is an organization founded by veterinarian Dr. Kimberley Pope-Robinson. Their mission is "to provide visibility, awareness, and a greater understanding of the various struggles that are common among medical professionals and ultimately helping to guide individuals to find personal solutions to professional well-being and career contentment."
While the services she provides range from borderline silly and gimmicky to what amounts to casual therapy, the variety of different options means that there's something here that is likely to connect with you, no matter who you are or what your concerns may be. Explore the site, and reach out to contact Dr. Pope herself if necessary.
Another national organization that isn't specific to vets, the SPRC is a huge resource center with a wide variety of different strategies, resources, and support systems that work.
They recognize that there's no One Way to prevent suicide and that a solution requires multiple approaches and different strategies to address the varied issues that plague individuals facing suicidal ideation. They can provide assistance for individuals or for organizations and have plenty of resources and options for anyone.
Most states in the United States offer some kind of mental health services, whether it's an offshoot of the overall SAMHSA program or something put together, funded, and operated by the state itself.
The AVMA provides the linked resource above, which goes through each state and lists any state-level assistance programs or associations that can help, whether it's in crisis, for long-term success, or anything in between. Find your state, learn about the available programs for vets, and take action.
Therapy Unleashed is a service provider founded by Christina Malloy. Malloy worked as a vet for a decade and recognized the need for support and therapy in the veterinary community, so she founded Therapy Unleashed to help provide those services.
She and her staff provide dedicated therapy from those who understand the unique pressures and challenges of veterinary care, as well as social work, coaching, consulting, and supervision services.
Lighten the Load
In addition to all of the above, we're here to help as well. We're not suicide prevention specialists or therapists, nor are we social workers or life coaches. Rather, we're veterinary consultants with specialties in oncology, dermatology, neurology, critical care, and emergency veterinary treatment.
If burnout is pressing down upon you, the long hours, high-pressure cases, and stress of your caseload are getting to you; you can offload some of that to us. Our experts can offer solutions and options for your patients in the above-listed areas, so you can relieve some of the burdens of your patients on us. Whether it's tricky cases, difficult patients, or specialty problems you aren't trained to solve, our experts are here to help.
If you're having suicidal thoughts or struggling with depression, contact one of the help organizations above or call/text/chat with 988 for immediate assistance. If you need financial assistance or therapy, those organizations can help as well. And, if you need someone to help lift the weight off your shoulders and lighten your load, call us, and we'll do our best to help.