Veterinarians don't always have to put on a brave face

Veterinarians don't always have to put on a brave face

Compassion fatigue and burnout are high in the veterinary profession. It's time to stand up and support one another.
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Apr 01, 2014

Veterinary medicine: the happiest field on earth, land of puppy butts and kitty snuggles and Pet Doctor Barbies in hotpants, or so they told me when I was 10.

Or perhaps it's the land of crushing student debt, clients frustrated that they're priced out of affordable care, and the unending mental strain of not being able to make every client happy and whole at the price they want you to provide it for.

Maybe it's somewhere in between, but it seems to me like it's leaning more towards the latter than the former. It wasn't always this way, and there are plenty of vets who still tell you they couldn't imagine doing anything else, but for many, they can. And do. I was shocked to see how many of my colleagues—good, smart, compassionate veterinarians—have left the field.

Burnout rates are high, depression is rampant, and though the world was shocked to learn veterinarians have the highest suicide rates of medical professionals, no actual vets seemed too shocked by the news. The truth is, this is a tough, tough field, and the toll it takes is financial, physical and mental, every day. We are expected by society and each other to buck up and put your own needs on the back burner, and it wears you down.

Research shows that one in four vets have considered suicide. In February, a colleague, Dr. Shirley Sara Koshi, followed through, and our field is all the less for her loss.

It might surprise you to know that while our field tiptoes around the concept of compassion fatigue, it's not regularly acknowledged as an almost inevitable part of what we do. Those who feel the strain are often left to feel guilty and disappointed in themselves for feeling that way. Animal lovers are deeply sensitive by nature, and I think both animal care providers and clients may be prone to those intensities of emotion that can veer into unhealthy places. I've dedicated my work the last year or so to acknowledging we need to do a better job supporting the emotional needs of our clients, but we need to do the same for veterinarians.

I sincerely hope our field is able to provide better support for our own in terms of learning to cope with the unique stressors of this career, that those support groups that exist within the veterinary community are not shoved in the corner to be sought out in desperation but held up as a standard for healthy venting. Encourage each other to live well and live outside the clinic.

I bring this up for several reasons, namely because I was saddened by Dr. Koshi's death and the highly-publicized ownership dispute surrounding it. I want my colleagues, especially those of you who are young and still learning how to do this vet thing, to understand that we all know how hard it can be. The Internet has not made this easier.

If any of you are struggling, please reach out—to your friends, to a hotline, to me, I don't care who you reach out to, but just stick your hand out and we will take it. I am happy to hear about veterinarians meeting to discuss what we can do to be more organized in our support of each other and stop being ashamed of admitting sometimes, this field is hard.

RIP Dr. Koshi, and know that we will acknowledge and remember the wonderful work you did in this world.

To read more about Dr. Koshi's story, visit http://dvm360.com/koshi.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, known as Dr. V. among her readers, is a regular contributing author for a number of well-known publications. This originally appeared on her blog at http://pawcurious.com/.

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