Charlee Gonzales

Within the fast-paced and emotionally demanding industry of veterinary medicine, veterinary professionals are grappling with a hidden mental health epidemic. 

There is an urgent need to address the disproportionately high rates of suicide and mental illness veterinary professionals face. Behind the scenes of their compassionate care for animals, veterinarians and veterinary staff face a multitude of unique stressors and emotionally compromising burdens that can take a large toll on their mental well-being. These mentally taxing challenges include passion fatigue, moral distress, financial stressors and even a lack of respect from clientele.   

“You often give so much of yourself to cases and patients, and receive nothing in return,” Little Rock Zoo veterinarian Sara Stoneburg said. 

According to a study by the United States CDC — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — National Center for Health Statistics, 398 veterinarians died by suicide in the United States between 1975 and 2015. The results of the study showed that 9 percent of veterinary professionals experienced severe psychological stress, 31 percent experienced depressive episodes and 17 percent experienced thoughts of suicide — all risk factors of suicide.

These stark statistics surrounding the mental health and suicide crisis in the veterinary industry are linked to a myriad of stressors in the profession.

“Common challenges include long hours with sick animals that often you do so much and it is not enough,” Stoneburg said. “Impatient owners and verbal abuse from those you are trying to help over cost or other issues. Often performing a thankless job that is underpaid.”

Moral distress, passion fatigue

Individuals practicing within the veterinary industry are faced with the severity of moral dilemmas regarding the patients they care for. Often veterinary professionals recognize a morally appropriate action but feel constrained from taking it due to organizational policies, financial limitations and client preferences. This causes emotional exhaustion known as passion fatigue.

Danielle Eberhart is a certified veterinary technician with 12 years of experience in emergency critical care — most of the cases she treats are animals who’ve been in accidents or are seriously ill. 

“Sometimes it is so hard and frustrating to do only what the owner will allow you, especially when you know there is more that needs to be done for the pet,” Eberhart said. “On one hand you have the people that don’t want to do anything and don’t want to believe that their pet needs more. Then on the other hand, the most heartbreaking, you have the people that want to do everything possible for their pet but can’t afford it.”

Student loan debt and wages 

Schooling to become a veterinarian — let alone a technician or assistant — is expensive. The American Veterinary Medical Association calculated that the average educational debt was $154,451 among veterinary colleges across the United States. Many veterinary professionals are severely underpaid as well; just making enough to pay off any student loan debt and get by to afford the basics.

“I do believe that income is a huge issue in vet med,” emergency veterinary technician Sara Spiker said.

For most veterinary professionals, the disproportional debt-to-income ratio can impact mental well-being. Feeling underpaid and highly underappreciated contributes to veterinary professionals being unsatisfied with their careers and highly unmotivated.  

“For licensed technicians, we are highly underpaid which can lead to moral distress and job unsatisfaction,” Spiker said. “As a tech student, it is very difficult to nearly impossible to work full time and be an avid student, which can lead to lower learning levels and further burnout.”

Clientele respect — a lack thereof?

Veterinarians and their staff frequently deal with harassment and verbal abuse from their clients on a daily basis. Continuous disrespect from clients can cause unnecessary anxiety, burnout and job dissatisfaction among veterinary professionals.

“Someone can be ignorant to our jobs and make snide comments, or putting their pet above others when there is nothing emergent, and not being empathetic to other owners, pets or staff,” Spiker said.

When client ignorance begins to impact the mental health of a veterinary professional, the ability to provide the highest quality care begins to deteriorate as well. 

“If your mental health is low, you often lose focus and can make mistakes that you normally don’t,” Stoneburg said. “On top of this, the fatigue often makes you less enthusiastic to be at work and dread coming in.”

Support and resources

Although mental health challenges are relatively prevalent in the veterinary industry, there is little support offered to veterinary professionals struggling with mental health. However, this issue is being addressed. More workplaces are offering therapy or outreach organizations that a veterinary professional can contact to receive support. 

Spiker said her workplace even provides a social worker for staff and clients. 

“This has been a tremendous help in mediating issues with clients as well as feeling supported and being able to talk to someone while at work,” Spiker said.

Fostering change

Eberhart and Spiker said that offering support to veterinary professionals is an effective way to reduce the mental health crisis within the industry. However, internal changes need to be made to practices to seek the well-being of most veterinary professionals in the long run. 

“They can do their best to fully staff shifts, easier said than done, pay competitive rates, promote mental health and [take] PTO,” Eberhart said regarding what veterinary practices can do to promote better mental health.

In addition to veterinary practices making changes, veterinary technician, assistant and veterinarian schools need to make changes to preserve the mental health of future professionals. Eberhart said that the shock of being thrown into the industry without any prior knowledge of the mental challenges is destroying the confidence of new veterinary professionals. 

“I think assistant, tech and vet schools can have mental classes for their students and teach them coping skills,” Eberhart said. “Also talking about the realistic side of vet medicine and not sugar coating.” 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a crisis line for those seeking emotional support or for those seeking to help someone else. To speak with a certified listener call 988.