Veterinarians and mental health awareness—helping the helpers
Rev. Bryan Jackson
May 12, 2021
Mental Health Awareness Month should be a time for reflection on the impact of emotional well-being for all creatures great and small, not just humans. As we know, the pandemic has intensified many aspects of mental health. With so many jobs lost and dreams deferred or destroyed, the toll on people everywhere has been enormous. One group of special people and those they serve demand attention: veterinarians.
The risk of suicide among veterinarians has increased since the onset of the pandemic, and it has been a source of concern for many years. It is not just a matter of COVID-19’s effects on the profession. Some of this is due to other factors that preceded the pandemic. During a recent video conference with a longtime veterinarian friend, I learned a few things about what has brought us to this unfortunate point. According to her, veterinarian suicides during the early 1990s generated a “wake-up call” for doctors and others in the profession. Moreover, social media has, for better or worse, made it more personal over the years (O. Gayle, DVM, personal communication, April 7, 2021).
One of the discouraging things Dr. Gayle cites as a contributing factor is the historically low pay that vets receive when compared to their peers who practice within the human healthcare system. This could be because of the premium that human beings often put on human lives over animal lives. She spoke of the understandable feelings of unworthiness that she and some of her peers experience that can be spurred by the waning salaries, not to mention racial and gender disparities. As a Jamaican-born woman of African descent, Dr. Gayle knows whereof she speaks. She pointed out that, to this day, she continues to make less than many of her colleagues, especially those who are white and male. This common problem among so many different jobs and professions across America is somehow especially disappointing when one considers the reality of those who look after the best interests of our beloved companion animals. She has known colleagues who, upon reflection, would say that becoming a veterinarian has ultimately not been worth it for them.
The consistent practice of animal euthanasia is another aspect of the veterinary profession that takes its toll. Though euthanasia is a necessary and prudent aspect of the professional’s responsibilities, it can, Dr. Gayle said, account for about half of the ongoing stress that a vet must deal with. She also shared that knowing the animal from a juvenile to adulthood makes the process even harder.
In the Book of Genesis, in the first account of creation, God made the animals and pronounced it good. The animals seemed to be doing just fine before humans came along. The Christian imperative that we care for our four-legged relatives should cause us to more closely examine how we care for the two-legged ones who have devoted their lives to animal welfare. In “Animal Theology,” Andrew Linzey posed the question, “In what way, if at all, are human beings unique in creation?”[i] The heroes who work the front lines of veterinary care are our living reminders to continually ask ourselves this vital question. The existence and joy of our animal relatives cannot be divorced from the conflicting duties of their stalwart medical caretakers. The problem is that many vets struggle in more ways than they will ever let on.
Perhaps, beginning this month, we can reexamine just how it is that we might play a role that could contribute to the rising incidence of suicide among veterinary professionals, and give them our best attention and efforts when we take our pets into see them. Our veterinarians are usually giving us their best, and reciprocation is a good start to helping them, ourselves, and our animal relatives live in an abundant way.
According to Gayle, many in the profession are reluctant to get help. A stigma still exists within the community regarding thoughts of self-harm. My friend also added that she knows of one vet who, had it not been for that person’s conviction that suicide is a sin, would have possibly committed suicide. As a family systems theory clergyperson, I submit that this is a “we” thing and not merely an individual veterinarian thing. That is, a system problem exists that calls those of us within it to ponder what more we can do to help address this challenging issue.
One potential solution is for people to stop seeing vets as overseers of a commodity product—one’s companion animal. As a former professional canine obedience instructor and veterinary assistant, I can testify to how many persons tend to treat their vets in inappropriate ways. A sense of entitlement among some can lead to impaired ideas about what their vet does and does not owe them. Some people have invested so much into their companion animal in treats, pedicures, toys, and other non-essentials that, when it comes to the animal’s actual medical well-being, the doctor is often chastised or scrutinized because of what are actually typical rising healthcare fees. Clients frequently challenge what are considered “reasonable and customary” charges for their pets. Many of these people are unwilling or unable to conceptualize the importance and true meaning of their pet’s healthcare. Competitive fees from doctors are more often than not reasonable and customary.
Another way to assist is to suggest ways to encourage vets to reach out when things become overwhelming, a frequent occurrence. My friend emphasized the importance of overcoming that stigma and getting professional help when needed. Showing appreciation for our animal physicians—particularly by treating them with the respect they deserve when we take our companions in for treatment—can go a long way in keeping vets interested in maintaining their practices.
Perhaps, beginning this month, we can reexamine just how it is that we might play a role that could contribute to the rising incidence of suicide among veterinary professionals, and give them our best attention and efforts when we take our pets into see them. Jesus said, “I came so that they would have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10; NASB) Our veterinarians are usually giving us their best, and reciprocation is a good start to helping them, ourselves, and our animal relatives live in an abundant way.
The Rev. Bryan D. Jackson is an American Baptist minister and a member of the Mount Hood Cherokees, a satellite community of the Cherokee Nation. He lives on Vashon Island, Washington and is the author of Chattahoochee Rain: A Cherokee novella.