For a long time, the veterinary profession has been associated with mental health problems, especially poor emotional well – being and suicidal thoughts. Veterinarians spend a lot of time caring for others, but who takes care of the care giver?
Pushed to the brink by mounting debt, compassion fatigue and social media attacks from angry pet owners, veterinarians are committing suicide at rates higher than the general population, often killing themselves with drugs meant for their patients.
According to research, a veterinary surgeon is more likely to commit suicide than any other medical professional. Studies also show that veterinarians have slightly lower degrees of well-being than the general population and that 24.9 percent of veterinarians have considered suicide at some time in their lives. This is associated with the kind of emotional stress they undergo when attending to their clients.
Overstressed and undervalued
One major problem that veterinarians face is lack of a strong support system. Veterinarians sometimes undergo hard times associated with their work and find themselves with no one to share their predicaments with. They pile up the stresses, and this later results to depression, and could later welcome suicidal thoughts.
As they say, a problem shared is halfway solved. Finding someone to open up to and talk about the struggles related to the profession, be it a colleague, a friend or a spouse, is very vital as it can prevent loss of a life.
Client concerns may sometimes overwhelm them. Animals were traditionally considered as property, but more owners now see their pet as a family member.
This means they expect the best possible care for their companion. Therefore, this can sometimes result in hostile clients who disagree with your approach – while as a veterinarian, you know it is the right thing to do.
Even if a client is happy with the care, getting them to comply with your medical advice can be challenging. Some clients stand firm with what they think is best for their pet and this becomes depressing to the vet on duty, because the client’s views could be wrong, while the vet is right.
Another major challenge is heavy workload, insufficient rest and prolonged, intense contact with animals and their owners can result in occupational stresses and burnout. Veterinarians who neglect their physical, emotional and psychological needs can find themselves suffering from “compassion fatigue”, and it has been estimated that between 15-67% of veterinarians are at high risk of burnout (Brannick et al, 2015).
Finances and debt can have a very negative impact on your well-being. If you are a true Kenyan, you know what it is like to be in debts, especially if the creditor is on your nerves. They won’t let you breathe or eat, and it can be frustrating.
Veterinarians also have to deal with such problems; consider a veterinary surgeon who decides to erect a vet clinic and because he doesn’t have enough funds, he opts for a loan. When starting the facility, he has very high hopes of large numbers of clients trickling in, but as time goes by, it turns out to be the opposite.
This is where his frustrations begin because he has a pending bank loan, and he still has to try hard to fend for his family. Such are what makes them have suicidal thoughts.
Changing standards, emerging trends and new drugs, therapies and treatments in the field are also a contributor to the low degree of mental wellbeing of a veterinarian. Health challenges such as treatment of epidemic diseases continue to increase and as a veterinarian, you got to know how to handle them. For some, it is a challenge adapting to the changes because it means going back to books, research. It becomes a wholly new task trying to balance between work and books.
The economy of scale among clients also affects a veterinarian’s mental wellness. Some clients really want their animals treated but they cannot afford the costs associated with veterinary treatment. They end up losing their animals to ailments that could have been controlled, had they had the required resources.
Concern for the future
There is a major concern of the younger veterinarians, as they are the future of this profession. Younger veterinarians are more affected by the stresses associated with the professional veterinary life, as compared to older veterinarians. According to a study conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association in collaboration with Merck Animal Health, depression (94%), burnout (88%) and anxiety (83%) are the most frequently reported conditions, and something ought to be done about it.
The same report states that only 24% of veterinarians age 34 and younger would recommend a career in veterinary medicine, and just 41% of veterinarians overall would recommend the profession to a friend or family member. By contrast, 62% of the veterinarians age 65 and older who were surveyed would recommend the profession.
Steps towards mental wellness
Recognizing the scope of the issue, some veterinarians have taken a step further by deriving measures on how to work collaboratively and share best practices to help practitioners improve their mental health.
World Association of Small Veterinary Association, (WSAVA) is one of the organisations involved in professional wellness of its members in the veterinary field. The organization recognizes that ‘there is an increased stress & compassion fatigue coupled with a demanding workplace environment that are adversely affecting the mental well-being and physical health of veterinarians. Hence, they have a vision to improve the health and well-being of veterinarians, para-veterinarians & all members of the veterinary team.
The association was created in 1961, following a decision by the then International Association of Small Animal Specialists (IASAS) to rename itself as the World Small Animal Veterinary Association. Today they boast of 110 veterinary association members globally and represent more than 200,000 companion animal veterinarians.
Its initial progress was slow but, with each World Congress, more associations joined, attendance increased, and the committees became more effective. The Journal of Small Animal Practice, which had become the WSAVA’s official publication, helped to share information between countries.
The professional wellness group is designated to;
- Design Professional Wellness guidelines, toolkits and provide platforms for disseminating information of relevance to small animal practitioners;
Provide guidance and assist veterinarians in promoting Professional Wellness in their practice
To help provide member benefits in the form of educational resources to the global veterinary community, WSAVA formed Educational Partnerships with several publications and organizations which include; Clinician’s Brief, Journal of Small Animal Practice, Timeless Vet drug Index, Vet stream, Vet folio, and Act Asia.
They also work with other industry partners to make sure that the Veterinary profession takes a step to the next level.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has also put veterinarians in their palms, in matters of educating them on professional mental wellness.
They have been developing resources for veterinarians with mental health issues that should be made available close to the time of the AVMA Annual Convention in July in Boston. Several presentations on emotional and mental wellness have been scheduled during the convention, including a half-day symposium facilitated by the Future Leaders on July 12.
The veterinary industry continues to look for ways to positively impact the well-being of practicing veterinarians and enrich the possibilities for the future of this profession.