Most veterinarians have answered a calling. They have an undeniable impulse to pursue a career for the love of animals. But the burdens of the business are pushing veterinarians to the brink.
Research shows the COVID-19 pandemic has levelled up the anxiety on the job.
According to statistics provided by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA), one in five Canadian vets and technologists have reported thinking about taking their own life.
The CVMA said a recent study found 26.2 per cent of Canadian veterinarians have had thoughts of suicide in the last 12 months, significantly higher than the 12.2 per cent of Canadians reported to have seriously considered suicide in their lifetime.
Dr. Michelle Dmytriw is an accomplished professional but in the last year, she says she’s suffered from depression.
“It comes to the point where I say: ‘Do I want to continue in this industry and go forward with an industry that has used me the way it’s used me?'”
She said job pressures are due to increased abuse from pet owners and anxiety to meet growing demands.
“People started getting more aggressive and it got pretty dark for me.
“I wondered if I have to get out of this for my mental health. I can’t go through this because there might be a time I won’t be able to make it through,” Dmytriw said.
“What we go through as vets is tough and the industry needs to make a change.”
She’s calling for more support for the front-line workers who are stressed out and burned out.
“Vets are committing suicide,” Dmytriw said. “When does it stop?
“There’s going to more suicides and more deaths and more depression and eventually awesome vets will be getting out of the business because they can’t handle it anymore. We need to be proactive rather than reactive.”
“We are humans. We have emotions.”
Dr. Serge Chalhoub is a member of the National Issues Committee of the CVMA and works at one of the busiest specialty and ER hospitals in Canada, the CARE Centre in Calgary.
“It’s extremely difficult. I know of two colleagues in the past year that have committed suicide,” Chalhoub said.
“A lot don’t communicate they have an issue and the burnout happens and don’t communicate suicidal or depressive thoughts, so we struggle with that and we can do better as profession.
“The profession is struggling on how to support vets.”
Chalhoub is also a senior instructor at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Calgary. He acknowledges the growing concern among new graduates, including stress around mounting student debt.
“It starts at the school and we have recognized it more. We need to allow an open door for anybody who wants to talk about it. We take it very seriously.”
Understaffed clinics are also a concern, with staff working longer hours.
There is also compassion fatigue. Ever since COVID-19, more pet owners are making decisions based on economics.
Dr. Kathy Keil serves on the Alberta Veterinary Medical Association’s (ABVMA) Member Wellness Advisory Committee.
“Recent studies are looking at what’s called ‘ethically challenging situations.’ We, as vets, are placed in morally distressed ways,” Keil said.
“It could be not be(ing) able to provide medical care because of limited finances or performing euthanasia or seeing animal abuses cases.”
She encourages employee assistance plans to help vets get access to counselling.
“Prior to the pandemic, we were seeing several per month but now we are seeing these ethically challenging situations several times per week and that continues to push the stress,” Keil said.
She wants vets to feel empowered to ask for help.
“You have the right to look after yourself; it’s not selfish,” Keil said. “We have to fill up that battery of compassion and self-care so we can provide that care to others.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.
Please reach out for help if you or someone you know is in crisis: contact the Canadian Suicide Support line at 1-833-456-4566 or find a call centre near you.