Growing up, many children aspire to become veterinarians. It seems like the perfect job. Whenever I thought about veterinarians, I believed their lives were surrounded by puppies and kittens, happy pet owners, and fun. It seemed too good to be true. There is an inherent allure to working with animals. Veterinary medicine is one of the only ways to do this in which you can actually earn a good living. But it is a tough road to get there. You have to make good grades, gain experience, take a few standardized tests, earn a bachelor’s degree, apply to veterinary school, get accepted to veterinary school, survive the rigorous academic environment, all before you graduate. The future seems bright. But the reality is that for some the career causes more pain than joy and fostering positive mental health becomes a challenge.
What is the reality?
Female veterinarians are 3.5x more likely to commit suicide than the general population. Male veterinarians are 2x more likely. These statistics, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association in 2019, came as a shock to me when I first read them. How is it that a career working with animals could have such a dark side?
To break it down, there are many factors that go into these daunting statistics. From the high debt to income ratio to sometimes daily euthanasia, stress comes from every single aspect of the profession. Veterinarians are taxed financially, emotionally, and physically. It is hard to have a family or social life when you are constantly working, with not only clients but friends and families eliciting services in lieu of taking their pets to their primary care veterinarian. Until recent years, it was not acceptable to talk about the toll these hardships take on a veterinarian’s mental health. And even today, phrases like “positive mental health”, “wellness”, and “self-care” are more of a glamorized version of “Why can’t you just feel good all the time and forget the bad stuff?”
What can we do about this?
I am grateful that the industry is changing and placing more of an emphasis on mental health. Clearly, we have passed into new territory and a mental health crisis amongst veterinary professionals from all walks of life. However, we cannot simply forget the bad parts of our profession and only focus on the positives. This disillusioned perspective only harms individuals by making them question why they are the only ones who feel like that are drowning in the suffering of not only themselves, but their patients, clients, and loved ones.
Mental health is truly individual. There is no “one size fits all” approach to creating a positive mindset or combatting depression. However, it is important that we, as a community of healthcare professionals, collectively acknowledge that America’s most beloved profession has a serious problem. And ignoring the problem is not the solution to fixing it.
I believe that the solution lies within each of us. It is by living our most authentic lives and having the courage to be vulnerable that we have the capacity to create change. We must talk about the difficult times. We must support each other and lend our expertise when it is sought. Whether it be through social media, a veterinary practice, or simply taking your pet to the vet, a simple expression of gratitude and encouragement could have a life-saving impact.
Our words have the power to change someone’s day whether it be for the better or worse. It is said that gratitude amplifies your personal frequency to the same magnitude that you would experience during meditation. Making a list of things you are grateful for can bring you back in the moment and shine a tiny bit of light onto a negative situation. We cannot change the world, but we can change where we focus our thoughts.
I am incredibly proud to be a member of the veterinary profession. I could not have visualized a better career for myself. At this point in my career, I am hopeful. I have created a toolbox to cope with stress and anxiety that I not only have access to in times of desperation but that I incorporate into a daily practice. I don’t always get it right. None of us do. But that is the beauty of life. We have the opportunity each morning to start anew, to welcome the day with new eyes and new perspectives. Mental health is not about meditating, journaling, or yoga. It is not about therapy or daily exercise or a solid family unit. These are all small parts of a giant puzzle that can guide you to a more positive mindset.
Mental health is a journey. A long and sometimes incredibly challenging journey. And it can start right now with the phrase “I am grateful for…”
For more information on managing anxiety, check out my tips here: 5 Tips for Dealing with Anxiety.