You may have noticed the acronym #NOMV on your social media feed lately. It’s both the rallying cry and the name of Not One More Vet, which got its start in 2014 as private Facebook group following the suicide of a prominent U.S. veterinarian. Today, the group numbers 27,000 members and NOMV has grown into a non-profit that provides mental-health education, funding and support to the veterinary community.
The recent NOMV initiative followed a tragic week in early March that saw at least two veterinarians and a veterinary technician die by suicide. One victim was New Brunswick’s Josh Smith. A 2011 University of Prince Edward Island Atlantic Veterinary College graduate, Smith, 36, was a clinical assistant professor of emergency and critical care at a Wisconsin university veterinary school.
Research indicates mental health has long been a concern in the profession. A 2018 report by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed 400 U.S. veterinarians died by suicide between 1979 and 2015. “Female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely, and male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely, to die from suicide as the general population.”
Here at home, results of an Ontario Veterinary College (OVC) study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association last year suggest the mental health of Canadian veterinarians is “poor” when compared to that of the general population. The study also found the country’s veterinarians, especially women, think about suicide more often than the rest of us.
Lead author, Dr. Jennifer Perret, left an associate position at a small-animal clinic to complete a PhD in epidemiology at OVC focusing on mental health among veterinarians. “At the time, I was very burned out and experiencing what I now know is most likely empathy fatigue.”
This term defines a state of extreme tension caused by overexposure to pain and suffering. When work and/or personal stressors exceed a caregiver’s ability to cope, they suffer psychological and sometimes physical symptoms that actually reduce their ability to be empathetic. It’s often called “the cost of caring.”
And, as Perret notes, those who enter veterinary medicine are typically “sensitive, empathetic” Type-A personalities – a combination of traits that inherently sets these individuals up for stress-related problems but also exacerbates the pressures of the profession. Not only are they forced to face death and euthanasia regularly, they also work long, difficult hours, usually have a poor work-life balance, and are often dealing with crippling student loans. Covid-19 has only served to intensify these issues.
Then, there are the unique ethical dilemmas – often money-related – that frequently put them at odds with clients. “A lot of people play on our very, very deep-seated need to help animals,” says Perret. “It hurts us so much when someone says, ‘If you love my pet, you would do this for free.’”
Large-animal and equine veterinarians may experience additional stressors, not the least of which is the risk of serious injury. “I’ve been kicked, cut, stepped on, smashed in the face with heads. I was just reminded of getting my jaw subluxated from a knee to the chin. And we pretty much have to finish the job and carry on,” says Dr. Colleen Dickie, an associate at the Charlottetown Veterinary Clinic in P.E.I., whose patients are primarily horses.
Large-animal veterinarians also generally communicate with clients via cell phone or text – a benefit in many ways, but it’s also put them on a 24/7 accessibility loop. “There seems to be a lack of boundaries,” she says. “My stress comes when I feel like I need to answer every call or text regardless of the time of day and I feel like I am letting clients down if I don’t.”
While a veterinarian’s job will always be a difficult one, as Perret says, “The only real place we can make change is in the way we respond [to stressors].” She notes that more veterinary schools are establishing programs for students on “resilience, mindfulness, and maintaining their own well-being.” Some, like the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine and OVC have put staff in place specifically to provide mental-health support.
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) devotes a website page to mental-health resources and has initiated a week-long awareness campaign “It’s Time to talk about Mental Health in Veterinary Medicine,” which this year runs September 5-11.
“The more we’re thinking about it, the more we normalize it, and the more we can start to improve things for future generations of veterinarians,” says Perret, who, although she loves clinical practice, recognizes she’s “happier doing less of it.” She now works part-time at a small-animal clinic while continuing her research at OVC.
Dickie, meanwhile, says she’s lucky that she’s always known what to do when she gets overwhelmed – like shutting the phone off for a while and going for long walks with her dog, Stan. She also takes time to appreciate her chosen career. “The fact I get to work around horses every day is such a reward.”