The following was posted July 10 on a message board of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. It is published here with permission from the author. The writer's name is withheld for privacy reasons. For background on suicide risk in the profession, see Suicide in veterinary medicine: Let's talk about it.
I've almost died twice, at the mercy of my own hands. Once it was a polypharmacy oral overdose of illicit street drugs with major hemorrhage from a slashed artery. The other time was from a veterinary specific sedative IV overdose. Both times I've (thankfully) been saved by friends, both inside and outside the vet industry.
This is just my point of view, speaking from what experience I have, in the hope it might help even just one other person speak up, or not feel so alone. But it’s also to ask the question why the rate of suicide among veterinarians is apparently so high, and whether it really is our career choice that is to blame, or is it something far more complex and intricate?
I've spent my fair share of time in psychiatric hospitals over the past eight years or so. "Don't you know vets have one of the highest suicide rates?" is the most common catchphrase you hear from psychiatrists, emergency doctors, mental health nurses and psychologists. But you very rarely, if ever, hear this from other inpatients (and it's not because they are ignorant of this fact). When I answer the question, "What do you do?" with "I'm a vet," other inpatients reply, "Oh, you must love your job — I've always wanted to work with animals." And I've realized that I do love my job.
Notwithstanding the heartache of losing some pets we can't save despite our best efforts, or those sad cases where owners can't afford treatment, I love going to work. It might have taken the psychiatrists reporting my mental health medical history to the veterinary licensing board, with the prospect that I could lose my ability to practice as a vet, for me to proclaim with certainty to these psychiatrists, "If you take my ability to be a vet away from me, you might as well sign my death certificate."
It might have been the repeated question of "What are you most looking forward to when you get out of the hospital?" and me answering "Getting back to work!" to make me realize that, contrary to my previous belief, it's not my job that's killing me. The reason I am suicidal is not because I’m a vet – it’s because I’m human.
If I was unhappy in my job and believed it was going to be the singular reason I ended my life, I would walk away. It's that simple. I'd rather be working another job, even if it was just to earn enough cash to make ends meet, than be dead. Regardless of the many years of schooling and my childhood dream aspiring to be a vet, I would rather be alive. We are not as defined by our careers as we often like to believe. There is a life outside of veterinary medicine. We are all just humans who are linked together virtually on places like VIN, or realistically in the work place.
This then raises the question of why veterinarians are claimed to have the highest rate or one of the highest rates of suicide. Yes, our salary is sometimes comparable to peanuts, and our work hours are long. However, there are plenty of people I know who work long hours for little pay who are not in the veterinary industry: small business owners, bakers, baristas, cleaners, nurses, caretakers of disabled people, etc.
It is indisputable that our job is stressful — we have lives in the grasp of our hands. But so do doctors, nurses, jail wardens, security guards, police officers, paramedics, aged care workers, school crossing attendants, public transport drivers, pilots, scuba diving instructors, army medical officers, etc. The list is endless.
It is unquestionable that when you combine low pay rates with long working hours in high stress jobs, work-life balance might suffer. Therefore, it's simple to place accountability on someone's career possibly leading to a higher risk of suicide. It's an easy link to make, given we spend roughly a quarter of our time on this earth working.
What makes vets different, then? Is it our access to lethal agents? Surely not, if you can buy 100 tablets of acetaminophen for $3 from the local pharmacy, or when lots of the general public have access to insulin (and other legal lethal drugs), or when street drugs are so easily accessible.
One patient I met while in the hospital had calculated the exact amount of cyanide she'd get from grinding down cherry pits to be able to ingest and die. She said to me, "I wish I had access to something that would give me a painless death, because then suicide wouldn't be so scary for me." It can't be that we as vets just see suicide as a gentle and painless exit from this world, because every suicidal person I've met wants a clean and painless death. And it's not just that we find it acceptable to die because we deal with death/euthanasia day in and day out. Almost every animal I've euthanized with an owner present ends with the owner saying afterward, "I hope I get to go like this." Human euthanasia is becoming more acceptable and openly discussed in our world every single day.
I look back at my life and I can easily identify triggers for my depression and mental illness. I was raped when I was 15 and didn't tell anyone for almost two years — a decision I regret to this day because it's now too late to prosecute him. I always wonder how many others I might have been able to save from going through the same thing as me if I'd just said something when it happened.
I had two abusive relationships that both landed me in the hospital at various times for stab wounds, bruises or broken bones. The hospital released me after they had bandaged me up; they let me go on my merry way without any questions. This is a massive flaw in the health care system.
I lost my soul mate in a car crash. Two of my closest friends committed suicide — one vet and one non-vet.
My entire childhood and adolescent history was lost in a family house fire, along with the lives of all my pets. Many childhood friends and most of our neighbors perished in that fire, along with my identity.
As I've just been forced to relive all these memories by doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists and lawyers and nurses and friends, I've listened to their response: "You've been through more than your fair share of tragedy already, and you're only 32."
My job has nothing to do with any of the above traumatic experiences. It wasn't my career choice that led me to be raped, or raised a knife to my throat. These things would have happened to me whether I was a vet or not. And I would have been suicidal had I been a vet or not.
Some of the most suicidal people I met in the hospital couldn't find a trigger or a reason behind why they felt like that. Suicide is not a disease; mental disorders are. They are a chemical imbalance. Just because you can't identify an exact "reason" why you're feeling suicidal doesn't make you any less suicidal. However, these people I met in the hospital weren't blaming their jobs when they couldn't find any other specific reason. Whether you feel like you have a "reason" or not, what it all comes down to is that anyone who is suicidal is suffering from a mental illness.
You can put people in diagnosis boxes based on their disorders, just like the doctors do — bipolar, major depressive disorder, multiple personality disorder, etc. — but what matters is that all these conditions are due to chemical imbalances in the brain. We treat these diseases just like we would diabetes or hyperadrenocorticism or separation anxiety in animals. We treat them with medications — and it's not always a quick fix! Medications take weeks to work, and the combination needs to be right for the patient.
I know vets are less likely to seek help because we have trouble trusting human doctors. We like to self-medicate and self-diagnose (we are all guilty of that!). We don't like the perceived stigma of being high achievers and having an illness. Maybe we think our professionalism will suffer if we speak out about our problems. We certainly don't like putting ourselves at the mercy of the health system. This was the scariest thing for me — letting go and having faith in the system, the doctors, the medications. Is this why it's such a novelty when a vet is admitted into a psychiatric ward?
Mental illness is not a weakness — it doesn't target you because you're homeless or poor or a new parent, just as diabetes and hyperthyroidism are not always selective, and they are all, most certainly, not a sign of weakness or inability.
Having been home for almost 10 weeks now and on a plethora of pills, I can say I am stable and happy for maybe the first time in 17 years. I won't jinx myself by saying I'm fixed because I know I will never be cured, but I am well-managed. I know relapses are common.
For those who hate their job — please leave. You have choices. We all have choices. I love my job. I love being a vet. I love my relationship with owners. I love my colleagues. Depression is a mental illness, a chemical imbalance, a disorder. Although sometimes a career choice might make you sad or even depressed, we can't generalize. Suicide is not always the result of a career choice that I, personally, believe is one of the best careers there is.
I did not try to commit suicide because I am a veterinarian. I tried to commit suicide because I am, to put it simply, just another human being.
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.