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Veterinarian suicides on the rise: Student loan debt, compassion fatigue among factors in suicide increase

Posted: 3:55 PM, Oct 04, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-04 16:55:57-04
Veterinarian suicides on the rise: Student loan debt, compassion fatigue among factors in suicide increase
Veterinarian suicides on the rise: Student loan debt, compassion fatigue among factors in suicide increase
Veterinarian suicides on the rise: Student loan debt, compassion fatigue among factors in suicide increase
Veterinarian suicides on the rise: Student loan debt, compassion fatigue among factors in suicide increase

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Veterinarians do so much to keep our pets healthy, but much of the public does not realize that the vets tasked with looking out for a pet’s health face challenges that can lead to high levels of stress or even suicide.

In a January 2019 CDC study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association , U.S. veterinarian data was collected from 1979-2015 and the information found a suicide rate among vets that was “significantly higher than for the general U.S. population.”

The study, citing a 2015 CDC report , also pointed out that many veterinarians had “considered suicide more often than the general population” since leaving veterinary school.

Additionally, with the increase in female veterinarians across the country, the study showed female vets were about 3.5 times as likely as the general U.S. population to take their own lives.

The study suggests vets are continuously exposed to various factors in and out of the workplace that contribute to high stress levels. Some of those factors include long work hours, high workloads, student debt, the communication of bad news to clients, and the demands or expectations from clients.

Dr. Dina Raichel, who manages the Windan’ Sea Veterinary Clinic in La Jolla, has been a veterinarian for more than 15 years. She said that despite finishing school in 2003, she is still trying to pay off her student loan debt.

“You’ve got a subset of people who are really dedicated to what they do and did not go into it for financial reasons. That creates an atmosphere where they work really hard, and we have huge school bills … the current school debt-to-income ratio is about 2-1, on average, and that makes it difficult,” Raichel said.

Helping run the Windan’ Sea Veterinary Clinic is also another item on Raichel’s list of worries.

“There’s a lot of overhead that we have to spend money on, so veterinary care can be expensive. We’re not in it for the money and we don’t benefit from a lot of it because the overhead is so expensive,” Raichel said.

She added, “I think we have a lot of people going into the profession because they love animals, and it’s hard to realize what that financial picture looks [like] at the end of the day.”

A Dec. 2018 report from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association shows that veterinarian salaries are climbing, but the amount of financial debt a vet school graduate incurs is also on the rise.

For Dr. Kevin Anderson, being in charge of the Otay Pet Vets clinic in east Chula Vista means having to recognize any signs that his employees are experiencing stress at the workplace.

“We have six veterinarians and about 40 employees, so I have to get a feel for how each and every one of those employees are handling [stress]. Each one handles it differently, so you have to learn how each veterinarian and employee handles certain situations,” Anderson said.

Anderson, who has managed Otay Pet Vets for 13 years, said he’s had at least one of his vets move away from the veterinary field due to the mounting stress that comes with the job.

“I worry about it with all of the veterinarians that I hire. Some you can see are more stressed and some will move on to less stressful jobs. We’ve had veterinarians who moved on to other non-veterinarian jobs because the stressors are hard. We tend to beat ourselves up every time over every case, hoping to do absolutely perfect medicine all the time,” Anderson said.

“Every veterinarian is different. I’ve had one veterinarian who had a pet pass away during surgery, due to no fault of their own. That veterinarian didn’t want to do surgery from then on,” Anderson added.

La Jolla-based clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle Carcel said that the veterinary profession “self-compassionate and self-caring.”

“They’re constantly having to work with people and their pets, and unfortunately, these pets have shorter life spans than humans. Veterinarians are having to put down these pets and having to talk to families about death consistently … it’s a very heartbreaking thing,” Carcel said.

Carcel also said cyberbullying was another stressor that veterinarians constantly deal with.

“This particular population is exposed to angry ‘pet parents.’ A lot of times, people are trying to vent their own pain, so they target the veterinarians themselves. Sometimes it can be harmless, but it can sometimes be harmful.”

Carcel believes more clients should approach their veterinarians with patience and understanding when discussing matters regarding their pets.

“If you see or you’re dealing with your veterinarian, knowing that they’re constantly having hard talks every single day, be compassionate with them, be kind to them, and understand that they have plenty on their plate,” said Carcel.

HELP FOR THOSE IN NEED

While the findings in the CDC study reveal an alarming trend within the field, there has also been an increase in available resources for veterinarians who are dealing with the profession’s ups and downs.

Raichel said, “The bright side of this crisis is that there are discussions happening and there are a lot of support groups … There’s more discussion in the veterinary schools to maintain a healthy balance … I think it’s going in a positive direction. Getting the media attention is always a good thing because people don’t realize what the risks are in the industry, but it’s an important discussion to have.”

Dr. Angela Sartor with the San Diego County Veterinary Medical Association said the organization offers a social network for San Diego-area vets to support each other and a centralized office where veterinarians can seek advice.

The organization Not One More Vet was first established as a private Facebook group in 2014, but it has since expanded and has over 18,000 members in its online community. The group is available to assist veterinarians who may be feeling the effects and challenges of stress in their workplace.

Veterinary neurologist Dr. Carrie Jurney, who helps run Not One More Vet, said the nonprofit organization “works to reduce burnout and suicide in the veterinary profession. Our main platform is a peer to peer support group, where over 18,000 global veterinarians come together as community of caring professionals. We also have educational programs on topics like resiliency and mental wellness, and a grant program that helps veterinary professionals in crisis. Our goal is that one day we will lose not one more vet to suicide.”

“It’s an emotional field. There’s a human-animal bond; people really love their pets, and when they get sick, it’s emotional for them and for us … we might see somebody losing their pet on a regular basis and it’s sad for us. We care about our patients, we care about our clients, and it can take an emotional toll,” Raichel said.

This article was originally written by Jermaine Ong for KGTV.