Monday, February 8, 2016

When Darkness Overwhelms

This post is going to be a departure from my usual lighthearted (or lame attempt at lighthearted) tone. This post is going to be about suicide in the veterinary profession. Statistics are not available for Canada, but in Britain two separate studies found the suicide rate among veterinarians to be four times that of the general population.  I personally knew two colleagues here in Manitoba who took their own lives, and in 2014 a prominent and very well liked behaviour specialist killed herself, drawing some media attention to this little known aspect of the profession.

To the casual outside observer this will be unexpected and possibly even slightly bizarre news. Aren't veterinarians generally well respected? Isn't it a secure, interesting and rewarding career? Isn't it a dream job for so many people? Isn't it wonderful to heal innocent animals and get paid to play with fluffy kittens? All of that is true. Except the part about the fluffy kittens. Why then does darkness overwhelm so many of my colleagues? There are three significant reasons.

The first reason is that veterinary medicine attracts a disproportionate number of idealistic, introspective and sensitive people. Sensitive to the point of neurosis. This is true of all of the health professions, but it is more so in veterinary medicine. Some of these introspective people are more comfortable around animals than around other people. They do not fully understand that it is actually a people job that happens to involve animals rather than the other way around. Grappling with this reality can be very problematic for some. Add to this the fact that competition to get into veterinary college is extremely high and success favours perfectionists who can produce high marks. Perfectionism and idealism are fated to be brutally ground down by the chaos of reality in practice. And then their innate sensitivity lays them wide open to the second reason.

The second reason is the inherent and often surprising multi-factorial stress of the job. Of immediate relevance to sensitive people is the fact that a veterinarian is at times marinated in death and grief. There are weeks, many weeks in fact, where I perform one or more euthanasias each day. Sobbing, crying, wailing, grief-stricken people, some of whom we've known for many years, are a routine part of our day. And for those of you who think this is simply a question of overwrought crazy cat ladies or frou-frou poodle people who too much resemble their dogs, I have two things to say to you. The first is that if you have not experienced a deep bond with an animal then you are missing out on a key human experience, one shared by people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, all levels of intellect. It is one of the richest threads we weave. The second is that you have no more right to judge this than a blind man has to judge a photography exhibit. Simply trust me that these are normal people with legitimate and intensely felt grief.  Additionally, a veterinarian is expected to be competent across a range of species and a range of disciplines from dentistry to radiology to dermatology to... you name it, wedging the door wide open to so many opportunities to fail. And remember: "sensitive". Mix sensitive and failure and see what happens. And I haven't even discussed the financial stress of trying to be affordable to clients yet still be able to service sometimes enormous debt burdens and meet payroll etc.. Or the stress of being a manager when you went to school to be a vet, not a manager. Or the angry clients. Or the angry spouse because you're stuck late again.

The third reason is that we know how easy it is. How easy it is to die. Those daily euthanasias are consistently peaceful, painless, quick and reliable. One hundred percent reliable. We know the dose. We know the delivery methods. We have the drug right there. Can you see now why it happens too much?

What can you, the reader, do? You can't do much about the first or third reason, but you can do something about the second. If your friend or family member is a veterinarian, do not trivialize their stress. Understand that James Herriot is a crock and that the real job is far more complex and serious than you imagine. Offer to listen with an open heart.

And what about me? Well, fortunately I had a "happy optimist" chip deeply implanted at birth. The zombie apocalypse could roll into town and I would say, "Cool, this will make for some excellent photos!" And, "Maybe brains are better with a bit of smoked paprika?" I have painted a bleak picture when in fact most veterinarians are fine, even better than fine, but burn-out is very real and for a small tragic minority, suicide is very real too.

This post is for Terry and Craig and Sophia.


  1. This is really powerful and's like a covert glimpse right into the very character traits that not only help make the compassionate and "human" veterinarians we so want for our pets, while clearly connecting readers to how those key qualities, in essence also leave them too vulnerable at the same time. Soft hearts dent Don McLean sang "this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.."

    And with apologies for the long "comment" - having only ready this post recently, the way you 'defended' the legitimate and intensely felt grief that we feel for having had a deep bond with an animal and spoke out for NOT judging the impact of letting a beloved pet go, really resonated with me.
    "It is one of the richest threads we weave." might just be one of the most perfectly worded and appropriately fitting sentences I've read in a long, long time. It feels like it put into words exactly why we grieve as hard as we do when that thread is broken..."Grief is just love, with no place to go..."
    This is a really heartfelt way to honor a side of veterinary medicine we would probably never even realize existed otherwise..Thanks for sharing it with the readers of this blog.

    1. And thank you - thank you for reading and for clearly understanding.