The emotional and financial burden inflicted on veterinarians by pet owners has left the profession ranking among the highest in terms of suicide rates for the country, research has shown.
Vets in Australia were found to be four times more susceptible to suicide than the rest of the population, with one taking their own life every 12 weeks, according to the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA).
“Ninety per cent of suicidal people have a diagnosable mental condition. One in five people in the general population have a diagnosable mental condition and one in four in veterinarians,” OneLife Suicide Prevention Project coordinator for AVA in Western Australia, Dr Brian McErlean said.
Untreated depression and high burnout rates were factors Dr McErlean described as some of the biggest contributors to suicide – both issues identified in a viral Facebook post from a vet on Friday.
The vet, based in the United States, explained she and many of her peers were commonly guilted into paying bills of pet owners who simply couldn’t pay for the care of their animals.
“The sad truth is that if a client doesn’t pay at time of service, they rarely pay. I’ve seen that play out over and over at multiple hospitals,” she said.
She also highlighted the emotional strain of not being able to treat an animal because its owner couldn’t afford to pay, describing the particularly traumatic experience of having to inform children.
“My hardest day as a veterinarian was when I had to euthanise a puppy with parvovirus because the owner could not afford even the least aggressive treatment.
“So, I ended his suffering. I cried. Euthanising a puppy that may have been able to be saved is not why I chose veterinary medicine. I chose it to help pets and their owners.”
The vet explained she had gone above and beyond for many customers by paying their bills out of her own pocket, but said it wasn’t realistic for her to continue doing so.
“I have paid several client bills myself. But, as I am sure you can imagine, I can’t do that for every client who comes in struggling to afford proper diagnostics and treatment,” she said.
“Euthanising that puppy made me question whether or not I still wanted to be a veterinarian. It broke my heart more than it seemed to break the owner’s.”
The six biggest contributors to stress in vets according to the AVA were the managerial aspects of the job, long working hours, heavy workload, poor work-life balance, difficult client relations and performing euthanasia.
“Isolation, particularly in graduate vets that move to remote locations to get a job, and relationship breakdown are high risk factors in veterinarians who become severely depressed,” Dr McErlean said.
“Depression can lead to substance abuse and this is exacerbated by the fact that vets have access to drugs 24/7. Low salaries also contribute to depression among vets and must be addressed.”
He said more emphasis had to be put on ensuring veterinarians had access to a better work-life balance, and raising awareness so those in the profession felt more comfortable seeking help for their mental health.
“Research needs to be ongoing to determine which wellness programs work best,” Dr McErlean said.
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