Reprinted with permission by Steven Meyer, PhD
I wrote this because #ILoveMyVet Michelle Meyer. It's a serious and thoughtful response I have been working on for nearly a month to a very serious problem we are both passionate about. Please, I am begging you, take a moment to read this and help me take a stand so #NotOneMoreVet dies from suicide.
I love my veterinarian and you should love yours: A passionate plea for empathy for a dying profession
I am the spouse of veterinarian, and I am beyond worried not just for my wife, but all of her colleagues. You see, the profession is dying, and sadly, it is by their own hands. I have heard too many stories about veterinarians dying by suicide to remain silent on the issue. People need to hear this, and it’s my hope that this will reach near and far. If you read anything today I hope you will continue reading this because it may help you save a veterinarian that is privately struggling with the idea of taking his or her own life.
The Journal of Veterinary Medicine recently published early findings from a study that found, “Male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely and female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely to die from suicide as were members of the U.S. general population.” In 2015 with AVMA published results from a CDC study that found, “6.8 percent of male and 10.9 percent of female veterinarians have serious psychological distress, compared with 3.5 percent and 4.4 percent of male and female adults, respectively, in the general population.” They further went on to say, “14 percent of male and 19 percent of female veterinarians have suicidal thoughts, THREE times that of the general U.S. population.” The Canadian Veterinary Journal published findings from the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association “wellness” survey that found, “19 percent of respondents (n = 769) had seriously thought about suicide and 9% previously attempted suicide. Of those who had seriously thought about it (n = 135), 49% felt they were still at risk to REPEAT.” The body of research demonstrates there should be no doubt that suicide is a huge problem for the veterinary profession. There are many contributing factors including compassion fatigue, professional isolation, and student debt to name a few of the most commonly cited, but what needs to be discussed and researched more within the profession, and in public with pet owners, is the role online interactions are playing in suicidality in the veterinary profession. Hopefully this post helps bring attention to this need and starts the conversation.
In the twelve years my wife has been practicing we have witnessed the rise of social media. When she graduated vet school the iPhone had yet to be released and MySpace was still a thing, so businesses had not yet adopted social media platforms as a means for interacting with clients and the public like they have today. In that 12 years we have watched social media slowly transform from being benign bulletin board technology used to inform the community of specials and office hours to a “weaponized” tool used by angry clients and people posing as clients as a means to destroy careers. A few weeks ago we watched a respected veterinarian whom is local to us get absolutely destroyed in social media. As it goes, someone brought a stray kitten into his well-established clinic. The kitten bit the women’s young child and was presenting with neurological abnormalities. Taking the child's welfare as the highest priority the veterinarian followed state protocol. He euthanized the cat and sent the remains to the state health department for immediate rabies testing. What followed can be described as nothing short as heinous. A local "rescue" group waged a social media assault on him. They labeled him a “killer” and “unfit veterinarian.” They called and harassed the clinic and threatened to leave fictitious reviews on Yelp and Facebook. The individuals who waged this war set out to destroy this man, his reputation, and his business. Their efforts were wicked and should be looked at as criminal.
Stories like the one above are not at all uncommon. I have seen coordinated “hashtag rebellions” of all kinds for cases where the veterinarian has done nothing wrong. Unfortunately, it is not just tricky medical cases that end up on social media. It can be something as simple as not being able to get a same day appointment that can bring a client to post a scornful and damaging message to the clinic’s Facebook page. In 2014 the AVMA published an article about how cyberbullying affects the practice. In that article they highlight the case of a veterinarian in New York City who took her own life after receiving constant harassment from a group, and in another case a practice owner was driven to such fear from online bullying that she had to freeze all hiring at the clinic because she was afraid of hiring anyone she did not know. Beyond these two examples, I have witnessed firsthand what hateful online messages and posts do to a veterinarian because I am the shoulder the catches the tears at night, so let me be clear and speak very plainly and bluntly to all the “keyboard warriors” out there… YOU are killing your veterinarian. Your slanderous words are driving veterinarians to kill themselves. That narcissistic message you spent hours crafting where you tell the world just how horrible you think your veterinarian is may make YOU feel better, but I am here telling you those messages are a big part of the suicide problem, and I for one will no longer going to tolerate it. I am calling you out!! Those messages drip in and slowly eat away at your veterinarian until one day they wake up and find their compassion has given way to apathy, their passion has given way resentment, and the excitement they once had for the profession has lead them to a dark depression. Your messages are robbing your veterinarian of the joy that lead them to become a veterinarian in the first place, and it’s heartbreaking for me to watch over and over again. Sounds harsh? Good. It’s meant to sound harsh, because the truth often hurts to hear. It is unacceptable to me that this has become a socially acceptable behavior in adults, and that is why I am speaking out on behalf of all the spouses and loved ones who care for “their” veterinarian.
Veterinarians are compassionate people. They didn’t go to school for 8 years and take on hundreds of thousands in student debt because the profession would make them millionaires. In fact, the average starting salary for a veterinarian is somewhere in the neighborhood of $65,000. Factor in the $1000+ monthly student loan payment and it is wonder why anyone would enter the profession in the first place, but that is the point I am making. Your veterinarian is there because they love your pet, so please think about that before you pick up a keyboard and call into question their abilities and passion for the profession. If you are unhappy with the care you received just find a new veterinarian, there is no need to sit down at a keyboard and destroy a human being over it. Please, help save a life, because you don’t know who is already on the ledge and looking over it, and just walk away from the keyboard. Whatever it is you have to say is not worth the damage you can cause to the lives you are shattering. These are people with husbands, wives, children, and family who care deeply about them. Is your scorching half-truth Yelp review really worth the cost?
If there is anything I have learned about being a veterinarian from being a spouse to one it is veterinary professionals are in desperate need of love and empathy. Now, more than ever, they need to see their worth is far greater than their Yelp reviews or rating on Angie’s List. They spend their lives giving their love and compassion to you and your pet, especially at the appointments where they end your best friend’s suffering. Those appointments are not any easier on your veterinarian then they are on you. It is a hard thing to put your love and compassion into keeping an animal alive for years through wellness appointments and occasional emergencies only to have to push the needle in the end when cancer takes over. It is my passionate plea to all who see this that at your next appointment, when you see your veterinarian walk in the room, let him or her know how much you appreciate them. They need to hear that 20 times for every 1 hateful and vengeful review online. Let them know how thankful you are for their abilities and their compassion for your four legged family member. Give them a hug and tell them how important they are to you. Send them card letting them know how you appreciate the fact they managed to see you for a same day appointment even though the books were full, or for missing their son’s basketball game because your dog was hit by a car at the end of the day and they stayed late to save him. Most importantly, if something does not goes as planned, and that happens with animals like it does with humans, let them know it is not their fault. You never know, that small act of kindness may save a life. If it is hate from online bullies that is killing the veterinarian, then it will be YOUR love and empathy that will save them.
I love my veterinarian, and you should love yours. Be a part of the solution and help save a dying profession. Start now by simply tagging your vet and letting him or her know #ILoveMyVet. Stand with me and let people know #NotOneMoreVet should be allowed to be driven to depression and suicide by online bully tactics.
If you are a veterinarian struggling with depression and suicide I am begging you to seek help. Talk your doctor, family member, friend, or another vet. YOU ARE LOVED! Let them know you are struggling and need help. I can tell you from experience, it will get better. Just speak up and say the word - HELP! It’s there, you may not see it from where you are now, but I promise you, help is there! You just have ask and let your loved ones guide you through this. You have spent your life helping and giving yourself to others, it is time to let others help YOU!
Love and peace.
If you or someone you know are struggling, please seek immediate medical care.