According to a study presented at the American Psychological Association (APA) annual convention, veterinarians and people who work at animal shelters are particularly vulnerable to mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, depression, and even suicide.
Angela Fournier of Bemidji State University said, “People who work or volunteer with animals are often drawn to it because they see it as a personal calling. However, they are faced with animal suffering and death on a routine basis, which can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue and mental health issues.”
A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that many veterinarians died by committing suicide between 1979 and 2015.
Dr. Katherine Goldberg, a community consultation and intervention specialist at Cornell Health and founder of Whole Animal Veterinary Geriatrics and Palliative Care Services, said, “Talking about veterinarian suicide certainly gets people to pay attention, but it does not tell the whole, nuanced story about what may be contributing to poor well-being in this population.”
“More research is underway to help better understand why veterinarians might be at an increased risk, but a combination of personality traits, professional demands and the veterinary learning environment all likely contribute,” explained Dr. Goldberg.
Dr. Goldberg also noted that vets often face financial challenges. The average veterinary school graduate has over $143,000 of school loan debt and they were reported to earn a starting salary of $73,000 per year in 2016.
The intervention specialist added, “Personal finance concerns are stressful for many veterinarians, especially recent graduates, and at the same time, many clients regularly question the cost of care for their animals and may be suspicious that their vet is trying to ‘push’ services that their pet doesn’t need.”
Substance use among vets has also been understudied. “In the United States, veterinary medicine is the only medical profession that does not have a national monitoring program for substance use and mental health issues,” noted Dr. Goldberg.
She went on to say, “Increased medical errors, absenteeism, client complaints and spending too little or too much time at work are factors to watch for. For potential substance use issues, warning signs could include missing drugs or missing prescription pads.”
She believes there should be a paradigm shift in veterinary training to prepare vets not only for the animal-related elements but also for the human elements.
Dr. Goldberg said, “We need core curricular material that focuses on coping with the emotional demands of the profession. Mindfulness, moral stress, ethics literacy, grief and bereavement, mental health first aid and suicide awareness all have a role in veterinary education.”
“Colleges of veterinary medicine that have embedded mental health professionals are a step ahead of those that do not, and I would like to see this become a requirement for all schools accredited by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges,” said the community consultant.
Fournier said, “Animal welfare agents, as these people are often called, are exposed to animal abuse, neglect and oppression on a regular basis, as well as routine euthanasia that is common in these settings.”
According to the Humane Society of the United States, more than 2 million healthy dogs and cats are euthanized each year, especially homeless animals in shelters.
“Shelter workers are then caught in a dilemma because they are charged with caring for an animal and they may ultimately end that animal’s life,” said Fournier “Research suggests that this causes significant guilt, which can lead to depression, anxiety and insomnia, as well as greater family-work conflict and low job satisfaction.”
People who work as animal welfare agents also hear gruesome stories of animal abuse or witness the consequences while they are taking care of them in a rehab center, causing a lot of distress and fatigue and affecting their mental health.
Fournier suggested that mental health therapists, who work with animal welfare agents, could offer strategies to reframe their negative experiences and establish healthy boundaries between their work and personal lives.