Veterinarians: Let's pull each other back from the brink

Veterinarians: Let's pull each other back from the brink

Recent tragedy in our profession has helped many of us—including me—feel more comfortable coming forward with our struggles.
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Nov 01, 2014

I thought I was the only one.

As I sat in the cavernous conference room during vet school orientation, I thought I was the only one using a bright smile to cover the fact that I was terrified that maybe I was making the wrong decision.

As I sat in grand rounds hoping to know the answer when I was called on, plagued with the thought that everyone else knew what they were doing but I was completely clueless, I thought everyone else had it together.

As I felt my stomach churning with dread pushing open the front door into a first job that was a poor fit, I thought I was the only one who started each day with a silent prayer that I wouldn’t lose my cool and cry out of frustration.

I also thought I was the only one who couldn’t reconcile the stress of having a newborn, dealing with postpartum depression, and still showing up each and every day ready to give my work everything I had. And when I finally hit the wall of burnout and had to leave a job toxic to my health, I thought I was the only one who wound up, in my own view, a failure.

I knew on an intellectual level that I was ready for the challenges of this career, so I chalked up my anxiety and worries to a character flaw I simply needed to barrel through. If it weren’t for the birth of my daughter and the realization that I needed to get help for her sake, I could have continued on for some time living an unhappy existence that, as far as I could tell, was just the way it was.

It was a bit of a stunning realization to realize that it didn’t have to be that way. Even more surprising is how many people in our profession have fought the same battles.

In a profession that attracts driven individuals with the combustible combination of exceptional perfectionism and deep empathy, there are a whole lot of us swimming around on the brink of drowning. Many people don’t even recognize the symptoms of depression or anxiety, and even if they do, the fear of the stigma associated with that diagnosis keeps many more from seeking treatment. We are more scared of the consequences of seeking help than we are the consequences of not getting help, and that is a sobering fact. We know, to our sorrow, what happens then.

From the first day of vet school, we’re taught that we are tough, resourceful and able to shoulder any burden life can handle. The first two are true. We’re also subtly led to infer that the care we need to devote to ourselves for our own well-being—the vacations and exercise and asking for help when needed—are not vital to our longevity but signs of selfishness, a lack of commitment. That is a poisonous line of thought. It goes contrary to every mental health professional’s advice for how to live a healthy life, and, coupled with an illness such as depression or anxiety, it can be downright catastrophic.

If one glimmer of hope can be gleaned from Dr. Sophia Yin’s tragic death, it is the tentative dialogue I see popping up in multiple corners of the web—first one, then many more veterinarians finally feeling brave and safe enough to admit their struggles. The floodgates are creaking open, each person seemingly blinking in surprise as they look at so many people around them and say, “Oh, you too? I thought I was the only one.”

You are not.

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, known as Dr. V among her readers, is a regular contributor to a number of publications and frequently blogs on her website, pawcurious.com.