Compassion Fatigue and Veterinary Suicide Part 1: A Tragic Reality of the Profession

Part 1: From the James Herriot Effect to a crisis. Veterinarians and their staff face increasing mental health challenges.

I recently came across an article called Not One More Vet – The Tragic Reality of Veterinary Suicide by Dr. Alex Avery. I cried as I listened to his podcast on mental health issues in the veterinary profession which was attached in the article, and the causes. It is honestly something I never expected. After listening to his words, researching on my own and speaking to those in the veterinary profession (on all levels), I realized that this is an epidemic much of the public is unaware exists. The causes are real which worsened under the pandemic, and it is a topic that needs more attention and support.

Like so many little girls in the 1970’s, I dreamed of being a veterinarian. I still have the assignment I wrote in second grade on what I wanted to be when I grew up. Like my brothers, I loved animals and was always trying to bring home strays.

Walking to school, my friends and I came across dogs tethered outside with no water and living in horrible conditions. Often the areas they could reach on the tether was so short that they would walk, sit, and lay down in their own feces. The dogs were filthy and matted. I could not steal the dogs and bring them home. My heart sank each time I walked by and no matter what I said to people, it seemed to be ignored. Even the owners used to yell at us to stay away. And then one day, the dogs disappeared. I never saw them again. I absolutely loved animals and wanted to devote my life to them.

As a child, the only thing I knew about veterinarians is my father did not believe an animal should have a “doctor,” so I never experienced taking a sick animal to a vet until I was sixteen. Our old 17-year-old Heinz 57, who lived outside year-round, was extremely sick with a neurological condition. I refused to let her suffer. Against my father’s advice, I begged him to take her to a country vet, where they determined that, without medication, her condition would continue to worsen, and she would suffer. My father would have no parts of providing medications to an animal. To him, it was a waste of money. She would be euthanized. I stayed in the room with her, holding her in my arms as she drew her last breath while my father begrudgingly paid the bill at the desk. He never explained his reasoning and I never forgave him.

I knew little about veterinarians; only what I read in All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. He was an English vet in the Yorkshire countryside of England who treated farm animals early in his career and then later saw the need to offer veterinary services to pets as well. His vivid descriptions gave the reader the insight of being a country vet. The descriptions of the lifestyle, the landscapes and the animals were wonderful. I wanted so badly to be a veterinarian:  financial security of being a vet surrounded by animals all day, bringing home strays, living in the countryside, and caring for them when they were sick. I was not the only one to suffer from this delusion of the perfect life. Dr. Avery refers to this in his article as the James Herriot Effect.

“…you’ve got this picture of this amazing individual, and I’m not saying he wasn’t, but there definitely were some liberties taken when writing that book. When you actually talked to his family, they said he actually struggled with depression and was actually an introvert…”

Dr. Avery mentioned many issues in his article that have led to mental health issues in the veterinary practice but to my surprise, these mental health issues, and compassion fatigue, affect every position from the veterinarians to the vet nurses, vet techs, specialists and even the front desk receptionists. People contemplating a career in the veterinary services need to understand that there is also a dark side that has been present for quite a long time that is only now recognized as a crisis in the United States. The profession isn’t glamourous or without its stressors.

Organizations like the CDC, Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine, College of Veterinarian Medicine and Biological Sciences at Texas A & M, Harvard Medical School, Mighty Vet, NOMV and various other organizations are focusing on how to stop this epidemic before it destroys the profession so many of us depend on.

Follow me on this journey into the world of mental health and the veterinary profession where I will delve into:

  • The James Herriot Effect
  • Empathy and Personality
  • Euthanasia and the Mental Challenge
  • Financial Stress – Owning a Practice
  • Clients and Attitude
  • Financial Stress – College Loans
  • Limitations
  • Pandemic Effects
  • Social Media Posts and How One post can Ruin a Reputation
  • Thank Your Vet and Recognize the Team
  • Have a Complaint? Complain in a Mature Manner. Remember, we are all human and make mistakes.

Even though I will use Dr. Avery’s points as a guide, I will expand on each post for you, the reader, to learn as much as you can on this epidemic. Together, we can be part of the solution.

6 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue and Veterinary Suicide Part 1: A Tragic Reality of the Profession

  1. Very thoughtful article. Coming from a high stress profession where I lost colleagues to suicide, I believe your last listed topic will open an eye to the sad state of society not just towards veterinary service.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: