Compassion Fatigue and Veterinary Suicide Part 4: Financial Stress and Cyberbullying

Financial Stress and Cyberbullying. Why these two issues are so overwhelming.

Financial Stress

The veterinary profession is a rewarding field, but it is definitely not without its dark side.  In the last post, I addressed euthanasia and the toll it takes on the entire staff.  I also briefly touched on their financial stress. Let’s take a closer look at the financial impact on mental health. Isn’t repayment of a higher education loan a ‘normal’ stressor which many people face upon completion of a degree?  If that is true, why should veterinarians feel that their financial stress is so different? 

According to Not One More Vet, the AVMA reports that in 2020, ‘the average educational debt for that year’s veterinary school graduates was $157,146 with the average debt for those with debt being $188,853 and over 30% had at least $200,000 in debt’ (AVMA, 2021).

The additional debt incurred to achieve the DVM degree sets these young energetic students back $157,146-$200,000 in addition to a debt may have been incurred for their bachelor’s degree. If they are fortunate, they may be able to obtain scholarships or other financial assistance which does require repayment. Sadly, that is not the norm for many. With such a large debt upon completion of their DVM degree, one may assume that they would earn a large salary immediately. The sad truth is the majority do not.

In a blog post by Associated Veterinary Partners on the Not One More Vet website, titled The Veterinary Mental Health Crisis Part 1 of 2: The Root of the Problem, they discuss “the cost of veterinary medical school in the US is well in excess of $200,000 and veterinarian salaries fall on average about 2.5x lower than physician salaries despite a similar level of educational debt. Decades of financial stress often follow veterinarians beyond graduation and can snowball with all the other stressors in their lives. Heavy indebtedness has been linked to poor mental health outcomes, meaning that the student debt crisis is playing a role in worsening the mental health crisis in veterinary medicine.” https://www.nomv.org/2021/09/12/the-veterinary-mental-health-crisis-part-2-of-2-where-do-we-go-from-here/

This is not just in the United States, but it is a global issue.

According to My Veterinary Life AVMA Veterinary Salary Estimator for Current Students – AVMA My Veterinary Life, the 2022 average starting salary for a 27-year-old companion animal exclusive veterinarian in Pennsylvania working an average of 50 hours per week in a suburban community is estimated to fall between $72,440-$107,494.  Using the same criteria for Massachusetts, this falls to $67,004-$106,526 and falls even more when looking for work in the heartland of America.  In Kansas, the starting salary falls between $61,885-$102,282.  Considering these average starting salaries are similar to those leaving college with a bachelor’s degree or finishing a trade school, it is understandable that the financial stress on a veterinarian is enormous when their debt is much higher. After a few years, they may reach an average mean salary of $108,153.

Two leading veterinary schools, Penn Vet University of Pennsylvania and the Cummins School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University, are each on the high-end spectrum of the tuition costs between $54,742 and $56,322 annually.  An additional $28,302 to $38,844 should be available annually to cover insurance, labs, housing, textbooks, clinical rotations, and other supplies to name a few items but these costs are not etched in stone.  As one can see, without doing their research for an education that would be financially within their reach or looking into financial assistance, a student’s mental health could easily be affected well into their career. (Penn Vet and Cummins Vet School costs at bottom of page)

Hopefully, students do their research before committing to a particular school to uncover more affordable options available in the United States, but even then, the debt, with the bachelor’s degree, may still be around $300,000-$350,000. That is a reality. A list of available scholarships can be found at the American Veterinary Medical Foundation website https://www.avmf.org/programs/student-scholarships/.

Add to this debt inflation, rent or mortgage, property, health, auto, business insurance including medical malpractice and/or professional liability insurance, car payments, and if a practice owner, add the cost of benefits, equipment, training, and hiring, etc.  The expenses skyrocket without the salaries keeping up with inflation.

If one is fortunate enough to have their bachelor’s degree paid off before embarking on a DVM degree, the debt will be greatly reduced. Available scholarships should be considered. The American Veterinary Medical Foundation is a good place to start. How Much Is Vet School? What Students Pay for a D.V.M. – NerdWallet.

Financial planning is critical to success, especially when one incurs such a large debt by choice. Financial security plays such a huge part in the stability of one’s mental health, and unfortunately, when these decisions are being made about a career, the student is usually young, inexperienced and has not considered the impact on their future. The results can easily make a person feel as if they have no other way out but suicide.

When that debt keeps rising, and the salary is not keeping up, what is a veterinarian to do? For current veterinarians, students, and veterinary staff, confidential peer support groups are available to discuss issues, obtain support and get recommendations for assistance. Such sources can be found at one of three Not One More Vet private Facebook Groups: Not One More Vet, Not One More Vet Support Staff, and Not One More Vet Student.

Social Media & Cyberbullying

While veterinarians and their staff do their best to care for each animal they treat, not everything will go as it should, just as it doesn’t always go as it should with human procedures.  And just as in the human medical field, smaller practices are swallowed up by corporations resulting in procedures and appointments times being closely monitored. Communications also seem to have been affected in some practices and not always for the better.

Sadly, in this new age of posting everything on social media, the veterinarian and staff must now also deal with cyberbullying on top of their financial worries. Not One More Vet (NOMV) describes cyberbullying as: ‘using direct comments to or about individuals, naming individuals, or using their photos online in ways designed to harm their professional or personal wellbeing. Cyberbullying has real and detrimental effects on the wellbeing of those targeted, and at least one in five veterinary professionals has reported being one of them.’

In a post I recently saw on-line through a community social media site, I watched as a client described her experience at a local vet with her one-year-old healthy black Labrador retriever that underwent a routine neutering, developed other sudden issues, and passed away six days later at a different vet. The neutering veterinarian and practice was named.  As with all on-line posts, this was one- sided. There was no input from the veterinarian or the staff, but quickly garnered over 180 views and over 130 responses.  The practice and doctor were chastised, several responders called for legal intervention to include suing for malpractice, pain and suffering, reimbursement for all vet bills, and the cost of the dog’s purchase. One reply even vilified the veterinarian for thinking they were God because of their education. Two practices which were unrelated to the alleged incident were brought up, named and chastised for negligence for unrelated incidents.  Many said the original veterinarian should be terminated…never to practice as a veterinarian again, but the ripple effect of the post will most certainly have undesired consequences, not only on the original practice and veterinarian but unfortunately also for the other practices that were mentioned. 

With all of the negative responses I read, one thing was very clear and that was ‘how the client felt’ with the ‘reaction’ by the veterinarian and the staff.  This is huge and this is where communication is critical. I can see many things that could have been done differently on both sides by simply communicating so I will not choose sides. I will; however, address options in my final post.

It is important to understand that the training received in veterinary school on financial well-being, business operations, cyber bullying and how it affects one’s mental health is practically non-existent, although this is starting to change. Communication is also critical as some find it easier to ‘talk’ to the pet rather than an irate client.

Many people struggle with finances trying to make ends meet. They struggle with their professional reputation being smeared across the internet and their local communities. It can become overwhelming at times as well as mentally and physically challenging. When threats of violence enter the picture, the overwhelming feeling of depression, anxiety and fear escalate. The veterinarian wants to help the animal but when clients start bullying, either in person or on the internet, their job becomes more difficult, and their mental health starts to get compromised as they begin questioning their own professional actions.

Education on mental health, finances and cyberbully are coming both during the veterinary program and for seasoned veterinarians. Organizations such as Not One More Vet https://www.nomv.org/ and Mighty Vet https://mightyvet.org/ offer education to help veterinarians and students understand issues on mental health. But there is so much more, especially on Not One More Vet. If one needs a confidential peer support group, it is here.

Penn Vet has hired a financial counselor, a career counselor and mental health counselor for both their Philadelphia and New Bolton campuses to help students with understanding and addressing financial issues. https://www.vet.upenn.edu/education/vmd-admissions/paying-for-your-education/financial-assistance

Veterinary students can look to the AVMA for resources to help them understand and calculation loans and learn early on how to manage their financial well-being. https://myvetlife.avma.org/current-student/your-financial-health.

American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF) identifies scholarship opportunities which students should consider when applying for admission to a veterinary school. https://www.avmf.org/programs/student-scholarships/

In my final post, I will highlight what resources are available to veterinarians so they may help themselves and their co-workers and I will also identify what measures pet parents and the general public can take to help end compassion suicide and veterinary suicide.

2 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue and Veterinary Suicide Part 4: Financial Stress and Cyberbullying

  1. Thank you, Rich. Veterinarians have ethical confidentiality standards so they cannot comment on social media posts even if the comments are incorrect. Dr. Shirley Koshi (Bronx) was bullied so bad over a cat that a group made death threats against her. She eventually committed suicide. People have just thrown all maturity, compassion, and understanding out the window. Every action has a consequence, and some consequences are deadly.

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