What is going on with suicide in the veterinary profession?

“Veterinarians far more likely to die by suicide than other Americans, research shows.” (NBC News)

“Veterinarians face disproportionately high suicide rates, study says.” (Time)

“Suicides among veterinarians become a growing problem”(Washington Post)

Chances are, you don’t need to read the news to know that we have a dark problem in veterinary medicine. If you’re like me, your life has been touched somehow by depression or suicide by a friend, loved one, or maybe it’s personal with you. I’ve lost friends to suicide and have a personal experience with clinical depression. This is a serious problem and we all need to own up to it. We need to remove the stigma of mental health and talk openly about the challenges in our lives. There are many people out there that are clinically depressed but for whatever reason, are not getting the help and support they need. It’s a tragedy but there is hope.

There are many ways to deal with depression – medications, therapy, and most of all increasing the awareness of this problem. There is a lot of talk about a work-life balance but that sometimes gives work a negative connotation. It is not as simple as working less and playing more. Often times, work is enjoyable and in fact, therapeutic. Many of life’s stresses are due to work but many are due to other more personal issues.

Not to over simplify a very significant and complicated subject, but there are some practical things you can do to keep from becoming a statistic of mental illness.

1. Our profession is very highly rewarding at times. Recognize and bathe yourself in the positive feedback of saving a life, making or keeping an animal healthy, or getting positive feedback from your clients.

2. Increase the odds of enjoying your job by becoming competent in all aspects of your job – quickly. The person who has had good mentoring in dealing with people will likely have less stress than one who doesn’t. The better a veterinarian you can become, the less chance of mistakes, stress, failing treatment plans, and unhappy clients. Do whatever it takes to be an excellent veterinarian. Work for excellence (not perfection) in surgery, internal medicine, outpatients, and perhaps most important of all, interacting with clients.

3. Learn to promise less to your clients and deliver more. This is not only good business advice but also a great way to avoid a confrontational owner.

4. Make sure you work in a supportive environment and if you don’t, get out. It makes no sense to work in a place where you hate to go to work every day. I am proud of the staff I have surrounded myself with and they all support me – and each other. One or 2 toxic individuals can make your life miserable. If your boss hasn’t realized the importance of creating a great work culture, get a new boss. This is your health we’re talking about.

5. If you feel overwhelmed, talk about it with somebody. Don’t be ashamed. It’s an illness and like all illnesses, a professional should manage them. This disease is particularly nasty because it is insidious, people don’t get the help they need, and it can quickly change from burn out to spiraling out of control.

6. Read everything you can on dealing with people (especially difficult people) emotional intelligence, sales, understanding different personality types and how to organize your life so you get accomplished all that you want during your day. The better you can relate to people (staff, management, and clientele) the less stressful your job becomes.

7. Network with other people. Depression can be a lonely disease. Surround yourself with (positive) friends, attend religious services, go to CE events and meet other people. Volunteer to help others.

8. Finally, even though it may seem counter intuitive at first, consider learning how to become a practice owner and get great mentoring in this area. There are many huge advantages to being an owner. Some of these are:

a. Being your own boss. You don’t have to work for someone who doesn’t share the same values as yourself.

b. Practice ownership is financially much more rewarding (when done right) than being an employee. Much of stress revolves around finances, student debt, etc. Being an owner is the fastest way to get ahead financially.

c. If you’re dealing with a client that just ruins your day or is a problem for your staff, you can just fire the client! This is a sure fire method of eliminating those stressful and abusive clients, which also happen to be a huge source of stress for not only you, but your staff as well.

d. Be kind to your colleagues and don’t view them as adversaries. Sooner or later, it will be reciprocated. Never throw a colleague under the bus.

e. Practice ownership allows you to assemble the best staff possible. You are in charge of whom you work with everyday – and those that do not meet your standards are “encouraged” to move on. No toxic employees tolerated.

f. Practice ownership allows you to practice the exact style and type of vet med that suits you personally. You even get to pick your own clientele and practice niche.

g. Finally, practice ownership is the ultimate way to a successful work life balance. What is a great work life balance for you may not be in line for what it is for your employer. If you don’t want to work Saturdays or want to leave the office at 5 to attend your kid’s sporting events or just have a date with your special someone, you can. You set the schedule that is best for you. Don’t worry about the money, as a successful business owner; there will be plenty of money - even with your ideal schedule.

Professional burn out, depression, and suicide are serious topics and need to be recognized as a real problem in our lives. Our profession is experiencing entirely too much mental illness. It needs to be brought out in the open and discussed. But while it is a serious subject, there are some very practical things we can all do to avoid getting sucked into that dark abyss. By the way, if you needed someone to reach out to, I’m an email away and would be honored to share what I have learned. No judging.

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