In recent headlines a young veterinarian took her own life and those of her beloved pets after what seemed like just another day’s work. But what could not be seen on the surface was that she had reached her breaking point. Her closest friends could never have expected the news. Just a few days later she would have joined them all on holiday and was to start a new job shortly thereafter. She seemed just fine.
Sadly, this veterinarian’s decision to commit suicide is not unusual in her profession. Studies show that veterinarians are four times more likely to take their lives than members of the general public – and twice that of other healthcare providers such as doctors and dentists. The natural question in response is – why?
Not just about working with animals
In a 15-minute consultation period, a veterinarian has to make friends with the pet’s owner and impress him, make a diagnosis, explain this diagnosis to the (often emotional) client so that he understands, then go through the medication and treatment procedure, put all the details through on the system, open the door – then meet the following client for the next 15 minutes. It’s an exceptionally stressful cycle that goes on for up to 20 hours a day. In addition to dealing with an animal’s physical needs, the vet also needs to attend to the owner’s emotional ones. Very often they need to be strong on behalf of their clients despite a heartbreaking situation, and in these times have to occasionally step in and help make really difficult decisions. In the corner of every veterinarian’s silver table is not just a box of treats, but also one of tissues.
Exposure to trauma
Although there are wonderful moments like helping to heal the sick, giving vaccinations to cute kittens, and stroking the soft fur of a rabbit who has come in for his annual check-up, there are also exceptionally sad sides to the job. Horrific accidents gnaw at the minds of even the most stoic veterinarians. Added to levels of cruelty and neglect no human should have to witness, the emotional burden ‘all in a day’s work’ is hard to bear sometimes. One can then understand why Janine was struggling – she also worked at an animal rescue organisation and had to euthanise 20 to 30 cats and dogs every day of her life. Much like war veterans battle with post-traumatic stress from seeing unimaginable suffering, our own ‘vets’ deal with a similar experience. Barbara*, a veterinary surgeon in Cape Town, says: “You start to hate people and how they abuse animals. You become disillusioned. Why would you want to live in a world like that?” Her eyes fill with tears when she adds: “You lose the joy of making a difference.”
Being exposed to the pain of animals and people day in and day out, and witnessing their suffering and knowing that not all of them can be helped, can result in compassion fatigue. This is a term for the utter burn-out and exhaustion that is common among professionals such as paramedics and veterinarians. Barbara says that the most excruciating part of her job is knowing that she is sending an animal back to terrible conditions that she cannot control. To stop herself thinking about these cases she works longer hours. Many veterinarians work seven days a week and are on call 24 hours a day. This results in physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.
*Not her real name.
The full article appears in the June 2016 issue of Animaltalk. In this issue you can also read more about what it’s like to be a veterinary student and a veterinary nurse.