The Veterinary Professional Mental Health Crisis

Caregiving professionals, such as doctors, dentists, and veterinarians, often experience higher stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, and mental illness levels than the general population. The emotional stress and financial burdens COVID-19 protocols placed on the veterinary health system have become amplified, resulting in spiking suicide rates in veterinarians and their team members, with many people leaving the profession. To become more aware of and understand veterinary professionals’ mental health challenges, read our Madison Street Animal Hospital team’s guide, and learn how to show your veterinarian and their colleagues emotional support. 

The veterinary mental health crisis

Veterinary professionals love animals, and are generally devoted to their jobs, but their work can be highly stressful and demanding. Losing beloved patients to illness or euthanasia takes a heavy emotional toll, as do record-high caseload numbers, high financial debt, and the struggle to maintain an adequate work-life balance. People who choose the veterinary profession have high empathy levels and are high achievers—two traits likely to lead to an increase in mental health issues. One comprehensive study showed that—while the profession’s mental illness and burnout rates were similar to other professions in 2017—those rates shot up significantly in 2020. The study found that:

  • Veterinarians have a 2.7-times higher suicide risk than the general population. 
  • Of veterinarians responding to the survey, 7.5% have thought about suicide.
  • More than their male counterparts, female veterinarians reported serious psychological distress, increasing from 6.3% to 8.0%, with young veterinarians also having a high rate of psychological distress. Among these, only half sought treatment.
  • Veterinarians had higher burnout rates than physicians who provide care to humans.
  • Of veterinarians responding, one in five had faced serious cyberbullying

A more recent survey completed in 2021 looked specifically at burnout and how that might contribute to an increase in mental illness rates. This study included all veterinary team members, and reported findings similar to the earlier studies. The more recent survey found:

  • Veterinary technicians had the highest burnout rates among all veterinary team members. 
  • Veterinarians younger than 30 years of age had higher burnout rates than older veterinarians.
  • Women experience burnout at rates higher than men.
  • Veterinary professionals who identify as gender-variant or non-conforming reported the highest level of burnout.
  • Higher caseload numbers directly correlated to higher burnout rates.

Veterinary mental health crisis causes

Above all else, veterinary professionals feel strong empathy and care deeply for their patients and clients. The highs and lows veterinary team members experience every day can take an emotional toll. As presented in the 2021 survey, caseload numbers are increasing as a result of pandemic pet adoptions and staff resignations that occurred during the pause. Veterinary staff are currently busier than ever, and helping pets in need while maintaining a healthy work-life balance has become more challenging than before. Experts postulate that other factors contributing to veterinary profession mental health challenges include:

  • High student debt loads
  • Low incomes
  • Difficulty setting professional boundaries
  • Underutilization and underappreciation for veterinary nurses
  • Feeling a lack of control
  • Increasingly being targets of client anger, frustration, and abuse 

Emerging mental health resources for veterinary team members

Although veterinary professionals’ mental health challenges continue, the industry is working to improve team members’ coping skills and reduce burnout rates, so more animal lovers feel physically and emotionally available to treat the ever-increasing number of pets who need health care. Many organizations are focusing on mental health resource access, with a few focusing solely on suicide prevention. Discussing mental health challenges with colleagues and supporting each other within the profession have become important tools as well. In addition, each veterinary hospital can help emotionally support team members by focusing on their employee hiring and retention protocols, offering flexible work schedules, introducing innovative strategies such as telemedicine, drop-off appointments, and other schedule hacks, and encouraging staff vacations and mental health days for an emotional recharge. Helping veterinary teams set and work toward meaningful professional goals can also provide significant burnout relief.

One notable veterinary professional emotional support resource is the Shanti Project’s Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, which offers professionally guided, peer-led support groups, enabling veterinary professionals to open up about their mental health struggles or to offer solutions to colleagues. Thus far, these support groups have proven helpful to several hundred veterinary professionals, and the initiative hopes to help many more veterinary team members in the future.

How clients can provide emotional support to their veterinary team’s members

Of interest in the 2021 survey—despite an increased rate of survey respondents reporting burnout—most veterinary team members noted that they were hoping for an increased number of in-person interactions with their clients after having coped with curbside service frustrations. Members of your veterinary team are making every effort to help you and your pet, and you help support their mental health and wellbeing by doing the following:

  • Set realistic expectations — Understand that scheduling veterinary visits may take longer than expected, so call as far in advance as possible. Our Madison Street Animal Hospital team members strive to accommodate sick pets, but we may have to refer you to urgent care or an emergency veterinary hospital in some cases.
  • Be kind and respectful — Veterinary professionals are smart, driven, educated individuals who are doing their best each day. Try your best to address them with kindness and respect. In return, our team will do the same for you.
  • Don’t become a cyberbully — If you have a concern or complaint, reach out directly to our team, so we can work to resolve a problem or find an agreeable solution.
  • Support your friends and family — Look out for burnout signs in your friends and family members who work in the veterinary or other health care professions. If they display increased irritability, exhaustion, or negative emotions, encourage these loved ones to seek professional mental health support.

Veterinary health care professionals play a vital role in your community, but they often suffer at higher-than-average burnout and mental distress levels. As a client, you can help to support your veterinary team emotionally by showing them kindness and respect. In addition, you can donate or volunteer to support Not One More Vet in their mission to improve veterinary mental health. 

Our Madison Street Animal Hospital team’s goal is to provide top-notch care to your pet, as we strive to support our team’s mental health needs. If your pet is due for their annual wellness exam or they are exhibiting illness signs, schedule an appointment with our team, and keep in mind that kindness and respect are always appreciated.

By |2023-02-06T01:36:38+00:00February 5th, 2023|Uncategorized|0 Comments

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