Is veterinary medicine a depressing profession?

“I don’t think so,” this Veterinary Practice News columnist writes

I’m glad that suicide and depression in the veterinary profession are out of the closet and getting the attention they deserve. But might the subjects be getting too much attention?

At this year’s American Veterinary Medical Association convention in San Antonio, more than one veterinarian and veterinary nurse who attended a day-long track on depression and suicide happened to catch me in a hallway and said something like, “Now I’m depressed; I wasn’t, but I am now.”

Similar tracks and symposiums are happening in all sorts of ways—from conferences to YouTube videos to Facebook live talks.

I am not a veterinarian, but I’ve covered the industry full-time for more than 20 years. I am certain that if you are a veterinary professional, you are a hero.

Before you laugh, here’s an online dictionary definition of the word hero: “A person admired for great acts, for bravery, and someone who saves a life or affects lives in a positive manner, often in a dramatic fashion.”

While I’m unsure about the bravery part, veterinary professionals save lives regularly. And indeed most clients are very appreciative.

Depressing Topics

Natalie Marks, DVM, co-owner of Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago, happened to attend a keynote luncheon where suicide and depression were discussed, and she has attended similar lectures.

“I can see how easy it is to fall into a trap and focus on the negative,” she said, “because this is all being discussed so much, almost everywhere you turn.”

Christine Navarre, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM, an extension veterinarian at the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine and immediate past president of the North American Veterinary Community, agreed.

“There’s been a lot of focus lately about what we may be doing wrong, and it can give anyone a lot to be depressed about,” she said. “But we do a lot right, too.”

Life is full of disappointment, Dr. Marks said.

“As a profession, we are passionate, we are selfless,” she said. “We try really hard and don’t accept defeat easily. We don’t leave the job at the office; it comes home with us. We take what we do to heart. Those are really excellent qualities. But that also leaves us emotionally vulnerable.”

What Evidence Shows

Results from the first mental health survey of U.S. veterinarians—published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in March 2015—revealed that vets are more likely to suffer from psychiatric disorders, experience bouts of depression and have suicidal thoughts compared with the U.S. adult population. Specifically, nearly 1-in-10 U.S. veterinarians might experience serious psychological distress and more than 1-in-6 might have contemplated suicide since graduation.

A few high-profile suicides in the profession catapulted the issues of depression and suicide overnight. A few years ago they were hardly ever talked about.

“Today you can’t be in the profession and unaware of the problem, and that’s good, but also let’s put this into proper perspective,” Dr. Navarre said.

The U.S. suicide rate in 2014 was 13 people per 100,000, the highest in 28 years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also, according to CDC, more people now die from suicide than in car accidents.

You’re Not Alone

Clearly, suicide and depression are on the rise, but they are most certainly not specific to veterinary medicine.

Several sources, including CDC, confirm that first responders and medical professionals of all types are more at risk of suicide compared with the general population. The long list of other professions facing similar challenges includes farm workers, fishermen, lumberjacks, financial analysts and real estate agents.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on depression and suicide, but it stands to reason that the enormous debt load of students coming out of veterinary school may play a role, and it’s a good guess that the personality type of the average veterinary professional may be a factor.

“Many of us deal with death every single day,” Marks said. “We tend to learn how to manage this in our own ways on the job. We do need training to give us tools to more adeptly deal with the grieving [clients] and then how to prevent compassion fatigue.”

Navarre added: “Awareness of [depression and suicide] will prompt changes, such as training for students and peer-to-peer informal counseling—for example, bovine veterinarians talking with other bovine veterinarians who understand those specific common problems firsthand.”

Accentuate the Positive

Might all this talk and more talk and still more talk about depression create a self-fulfilling prophecy or at least bring people down?

While veterinary conferences offer talks on suicide and depression, I’ve not heard of a single lecture on what makes the profession great.

Maybe that 1940s tune “Accentuate the Positive” by Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters had it right:

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive/Eliminate the negative Latch on to the affirmative/ … You’ve got to spread joy up to the maximum/ Bring gloom down to the minimum/” 

Marks stresses her positives by keeping a daily gratitude journal. In it, she’ll note anything from drinking the perfect Starbucks venti latte to seeing the Chihuahua whose life she saved bouncing into the clinic, happy and fully recovered. More importantly, she documents the smiles of grateful family members.

“Sure, I’ve had bad days—we all do—no matter what we do for a living,” Marks said. “But overall, I’ve never had a day where I thought I’d rather be anything else [than] a veterinarian. I’m proud of our profession.”

Navarre’s approach isn’t too different. At the end of every day she writes down three things for which she was grateful.

“I realize I can’t understand what it feels like to be depressed or to have suicidal thoughts,” she said. “But unfortunately this is an American problem, not solely a result of being a veterinarian. Sure there are challenges, but what a great job I have.”

Because pets are considered family members, it’s not an overstatement to say that veterinarians can keep families together. What can be more gratifying?

As a non-veterinarian, I offer this perspective: I represent millions—and I do mean millions—of pet owners when I say, ‘What you do is appreciated. Thank you.”

Indeed, veterinarians and veterinary nurses may be the most hugged professionals on the planet.


Steve Dale writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a certified animal behavior consultant, hosts two national radio shows, writes newspaper columns, and speaks at animal welfare and veterinary conferences. His blog is at www.stevedale.tv. 

Originally published in the November 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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