Many people have an idealised view of working with animals, and the job of being a vet. In reality, there are many stresses involved, and one of the tragic consequences is that the suicide rate of vets is around four times the national average. This week, I was interviewed on television by Claire Byrne on her weekly show on RTE One. You can watch the video at this link.
The interview was seven minutes long: I have copied the words I spoke below, for those who may not be able to watch the video.
I think that people tend to have a nostalgic view of what it is to be a vet because people love animals.
We grew up with this concept of petting animals, spending time with them and it’s all lovely.
But what I think is missing from that is the hard truth that it’s a tough life and it’s emotionally very stressful, intellectually stressful, financially stressful and timewise, very very difficult for vets to live a balanced life with enough time off to gather themselves from a busy day. The consequence is that the suicide of vets is around about four times that of the general population, and that’s about twice the suicide rate of medical doctors, and that’s not Ireland, that’s global, that’s around the world. It’s well known in the veterinary profession; we’ve known this for decades.
In fact James Herriot who wrote the All Creatures Great and Small books, he himself wrote those books as he was recovering from being hospitalised for clinical depression.
That wasn’t publicised at the time because back then, in the 1960s, it wasn’t done to talk about mental health in that kind of very specific way.
I’ve been qualified for over 30 years now and on average I’ve lost a friend about every five years to suicide, including my best friend from college – I was best man at his wedding.
Very, very, sadly this happened when he was in his mid thirties. He took his own life. I look back on that incident and I remember him working every hour he had; he was working 60 hour weeks, and even he wasn’t working, he was on call, he was on call weekends and nights. What that meant was that when his life hit a rocky patch for personal reasons, he had used up all of his emotional resilience and he just couldn’t cope and that’s typical.
You can find yourself as a vet walking out of a consult room and bursting into tears. Now the public don’t see that because it’s not seen as professional to be so emotionally involved.
But when you’re witnessing the absolutely dreadful grief that people go through, it’s very very hard to not feel that yourself, and so you need to find ways of dealing with that.
I have to say as well that one of the other factors that they talk about within the profession as to why the suicide rate is so high, is that every day we euthanase animals; it’s part of what we do.
So we know how to do it very very effectively and we also know how to use the thought processes and languages to justify death.
So we will say things like “She’s not enjoying life any more, we are taking her difficulties away from her, we are giving her peace.” And so it’s not a big thought process, if you are very low yourself, to turn that around, and to use that same thought process on yourself. As a vet, you know how to end life peacefully and painlessly: you can justify it, and you have the physical means to do it.
Please be kind to your vets because it can be very upsetting for people when animals are very ill and when animals die. Sometimes vets are the target of redirected anger and grief. And for vets who are very sensitive, and many vets are very sensitive, that can be an extra stress which can push them a bit too far sometimes.
And those considering going into the veterinary profession should think about this side of the work.
The Veterinary Council of Ireland and Veterinary Ireland (the professional bodies that regulate and support the veterinary profession) have been very proactive in trying to tackle the issues of veterinary stress and suicide.
Animal owners: please remember to be kind to your vet.