• Dr Nadine Hamilton

Our vets are dying for your pets

Reprinted with permission by Dr Anita Link

Contains Confronting Content

I recently removed the key to the dangerous drugs safe in the veterinary practice I’ve just resigned from, from my key ring to return it. And as I did so, I thought: ‘I wonder if my suicidal ideations will change now?’

I’ll come back to that.

I also recalled how often I’d heard the following over the last twenty years in practice: ‘My son/daughter/nephew wants to be a vet when they grow up.’ Always uttered under the impression that veterinary work is a dream job. But the dream can morph into a nightmare. There is currently a shortage of vets (in part) because our burnout and suicide rates are sky-high.

So why, after dedicating years to entering this prized profession, do many vets want out?

Perfectionism is rife amongst us. This increases our predisposition to anxiety and depression, especially if that perfectionism is taken for a ride in a world where clients can’t afford best practice diagnostics and treatments. We love working with animals, but most of our time and energy goes into dealing with their owners. We become a shock absorber for their emotions. Positive and negative. And sometimes the switch between the two happens quickly. A euthanasia appointment followed immediately by a puppy vaccination. Our own feelings are set aside for our patients and clients.

There is very little room for errors. At some point we will make a mistake with devastating consequences. When you’re a perfectionist that can be impossible to move past.

We work many unpaid hours only to have some pet owners tell us that we must earn a lot of money and that we mustn’t love animals if we don’t provide free or discounted services.

We marinate in guilt over taking sick days. If we take a day off, our work doesn’t wait until we’re back. It needs to be re-scheduled, cancelled, or (worst of all) it is dumped on our already hard-working colleagues. We are almost impossible to replace at short notice. So, we don’t take a sick day unless we are totally incapacitated or extremely contagious.

Unlike other professionals who have the knowledge, skills, and access to potentially lethal medication to die by suicide, we are practiced at euthanasia.  We witness again and again what a gentle way to die this is. We perform euthanasia to alleviate incurable suffering. The mental pain of chronic, intense work place pressure, anxiety, or depression can feel terminal in the middle of it.

Returning to my opening thought about suicidal ideations. I have experienced them occasionally as a symptom of Bipolar 1 Disorder. For me, they aren’t triggered by my veterinary work, but the ideations use the nature of my work against me: Vicious, involuntary, precise and clinical, thoughts and images that play on a repeat loop behind my eyes. A terrifyingly accurate portrayal of how I would die by euthanasia. Accompanied by a glorious and horrifying peace, because I know it would work.

Ironically my veterinary suicide risk plummeted after I developed Bipolar 1 Disorder nine years into my career. This illness has armed me with the insight and experience to know immediately when I am unwell and need to access appropriate treatment. It has also been protective because of its severity. When it strikes, I can barely function in my own kitchen let alone a consulting room or operating theatre.

I don’t know if the details of my suicidal ideations will change now that I no longer have a key to a dangerous drugs safe. But I’m not worried about me. In addition to insight I have an excellent psychiatrist and psychologist, access to a private psychiatric hospital when I need it, and a toolbox full of psychological strategies on my side.

No, I am concerned about my fellow vets. They are in danger because they may die before they have the opportunity to develop insight. They are also vulnerable because (often) they will be able to function around their despair. So, they can look and sound almost normal even when they are about to die.

And way too often they are so busy that when they are overcome by mental anguish, their first stop is not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or even a GP. Their first stop is that dangerous drugs safe. And because they know what they are doing, they will die…

These small things could help save this profession from extinction:

If you are a pet owner, please don’t blame your vet if you can’t afford their recommendations. You might also like to read this article I wrote about what I decided to do and why, when I was confronted with a sizeable veterinary bill for my own cat a couple of years ago:

If you are a veterinary employer, please foster a culture of openness around mental health in your practice, and don’t respond negatively to your vets taking sick days.

If you are a vet, please care for yourself first. Take time off as often as you can, to refill your emotional energy reserves. Talk to each other about how you are feeling. Think about finding a good psychologist, especially if you or a family member have a history of mental illness. A psychologist can provide impartial life advice, and help you build up a psychological strategy tool kit to help deal with work challenges. And don’t tie up all your self esteem in your career. That way, if the work kicks you, it’s not kicking all of you.

If you are feeling suicidal call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14 or attend your nearest hospital.