As a veterinarian, you choose to work in the industry because you love animals and wish to devote your life to helping them. Many people assume the veterinary profession must consist of playing with puppies and kittens all day. While this is a positive aspect, there is much more about the job that can cause intense stress on veterinarians. This stress, combined with a heavy workload, can lead to various mental health issues.
It’s important to care for your well-being and mental health. You already spend so much of your time caring for others, which can cause you to neglect your own self-care and not even realize you are suffering from symptoms of a mental health crisis. Here’s what you should know about veterinary mental health.
Veterinary Mental Health Crisis
Most veterinary clinics are highly understaffed due to a national shortage. Doing your job becomes even harder when you take on the load from a lack of staff, so it’s easy to become overworked. Many veterinarians even keep in contact with clients and patients on their off days. However, all of this hard work and dedication often go unnoticed.
Here are some of the primary reasons that veterinarians face poor mental health.
- Making life-or-death decisions: Though it’s not possible to save every patient, veterinarians usually perform euthanasia every single day — for various reasons. Sometimes, you may even have to euthanize abused or neglected animals and choose to end their suffering. In other cases, you may have to euthanize animals with treatable conditions or illnesses because their owners cannot afford treatment. Making these heartbreaking decisions daily can lead to depression.
- Financial stress: Student debt affects more than 43 million people all over the nation, but veterinarians often have very high student debt in comparison to their income, and the gap has been increasing over time. Though vets spend almost the same amount of years in school as physicians, they typically make much less. This financial burden can certainly lead to extreme stress.
- Client frustration and anger: Veterinary medicine, services, lab costs and equipment can be expensive. Providing these services for patients is essential, but the price can upset many clients. Some clients may have a sick animal or find themselves in an emergency that requires extensive treatment and medication. Clients may become angry about the cost of these services and take out their frustration on the veterinarian or staff devoted to helping the animals. It’s not uncommon for vets to face threats, yelling, untruthful retaliation on social media or even physical violence.
With so much stress accumulating from your job, it’s easy to feel isolated. However, these feelings are quite common based on general veterinary mental health statistics. Two-thirds of veterinarians reported mental health concerns and feelings of depression, burnout, panic attacks, anxiety or compassion fatigue.
Other veterinary statistics found 50% of those experiencing mental illness were not receiving treatment, and only 41% said they would recommend a career as a veterinarian. For those who weren’t receiving treatment, many cited they did not realize they needed help, felt embarrassed to ask for help, feared judgment from others or simply did not know where to seek help. Additionally, the general population sits at a poor well-being rate of about 7.3%, while 9.1% of veterinarians are experiencing poor well-being. Female and younger veterinarians are also more likely to experience these mental health issues.
Some data suggest the suicide rate among veterinarians is increasing, with an estimated one in 10 veterinarians experiencing severe psychological distress due to untreated mental illness.
Different Types of Veterinary Mental Health Issues
Vets can experience many types of mental health problems working a stressful job with long hours. Here are some of the most common ones in the industry.
Burnout often occurs when veterinarians are continuously exposed to chronic stress accompanied by feeling overworked. This feeling can develop when there is a lack of resources at work for required services and demands, conflict among staff and loss of control over the quality of service provided. Some veterinarians may also feel burnt out when they experience a lack of respect or major differences in their organization’s goals and their own values.
Many veterinarians find their job stressful and have symptoms of burnout, which can also result from a lack of work-life balance. Burnout is sometimes considered a branch of compassion fatigue.
2. Compassion Fatigue
Also referred to as emotional strain or secondary victimization, compassion fatigue occurs when you feel helpless and upset that you cannot save every pet or solve every medical problem. This feeling is strongly associated with the type of work veterinarians do, which requires constant empathy, compassion and emotional stability. Veterinarians must provide quality care while telling families their beloved dog has cancer or their cat who was hit by a car did not make it through surgery.
These are just two examples of the endless compassion veterinarians are expected to provide without any concern for their own well-being or feelings of failure. When a veterinarian experiences compassion fatigue, it usually means they have a reduced capacity for empathy after constant exposure to pain, suffering and personal stress.
Occupational stress is often the primary cause of depression in veterinarians, who face unwanted negative thoughts and unhealthy coping mechanisms. Depression and anxiety are closely connected — as many people who experience one will also have symptoms of the other — such as excessive worry, social withdrawal, agitation and difficulty with concentration. The debilitating effects of depression, particularly when left untreated, are significant factors that increase suicidal ideation and suicide attempts.
4. Suicidal Ideation
Suicidal ideation occurs when a person starts to have thoughts and ideas about dying by suicide or death in general. Veterinarians can experience these feelings after struggling with severe mental health issues and the ability to cope or function in their daily life. Suicidal ideation can vary in intensity, from mere thoughts to deliberate planning of suicide.
Suicide is more likely among veterinarians than the general population. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide, and male veterinarians are 2.1 times more likely.
Signs to Look For
When occupational and personal stress becomes overwhelming, they exceed your ability to cope. This can significantly impair many aspects of your personal and work life as you may experience psychological or even physical symptoms that can become incapacitating. It’s always good to know the signs to watch for that could indicate various mental health problems in yourself or someone you know in the veterinary industry. These signs include the following:
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Social isolation or alienation
- Inability to express emotion
- Extreme sadness or apathy
- Reduced performance
- Unhealthy coping mechanisms such as gambling or substance abuse
- Eating disorders
- Excessive complaints about work or life problems
- Lack of self-care or disheveled appearance
In addition to these symptoms, you may experience — or notice someone else experience — four different phases or patterns of behavior that can indicate mental health issues.
- Zealot: In this first phase, you may feel enthusiastic about your job, rejoice in making a difference and may even make excuses for going above and beyond even when dealing with stress. In the zealot phase, you often push yourself harder when stressed and become a workaholic in an attempt to handle feeling overwhelmed.
- Irritability: In the second phase, you may begin to make mistakes at work, become easily distracted or impatient, lose your sense of humor or even feel angry. These feelings are the result of being underappreciated, undervalued and lacking resources. You may also feel ashamed about struggling to handle the workload and start blaming others or criticizing them.
- Withdrawal: The third phase consists of irregular sleep patterns, exhaustion, physical ailments or sickness and increased complaints about your job. In the withdrawal phase, you may feel a sense of self-entitlement for any negative coping mechanisms you develop or try to justify your behaviors. You may also start to neglect yourself and your job, feel detached, develop substance abuse and have thoughts of self-harm.
- Zombie: By this stage, you may feel completely disconnected from your job and perform your tasks on autopilot. Veterinarians in the zombie stage may feel empty, numb and make countless mistakes at work, which may increase negative coping techniques such as drinking, smoking or gambling. This stage also consists of more intense thoughts of self-harm or harming others.
9 Tips for Dealing With Poor Mental Health
Managing and improving your mental health is an act of consistency and acknowledgment. When you are aware of your mental state and know what to look out for, you become better equipped to face these issues. Here are nine tips to help with a mental health crisis.
1. Reach Out for Help
Many people may not seek treatment for fear of being judged, but your mental health is of the utmost importance — and you deserve relief. There are many different types of effective treatment and mental health services available to help you recover from the depression and anxiety you are experiencing. Chronic stress, anxiety, depression and burnout can be challenging to overcome on your own — seek professional help when you feel overwhelmed.
2. See Your Worth
It’s important to treat yourself with kindness and engage in hobbies and activities you enjoy to lift your mood. Try to ease up on the inner voice that criticizes you and encourages you to be too hard on yourself. Find ways to see your worth by setting aside time to enjoy your personal time. This will also help you set healthy boundaries and prevent your work from overtaking your life.
3. Embrace Positivity
It might sound cliche, but adopting a habit of staying positive can become second nature if you implement it consistently in your life. Stay away from negative situations, reactions or thoughts you may have and replace them with something positive. Practice appreciation for the small, good moments in your day — this can help you become more optimistic even when things go wrong.
It’s also a good idea to make sure you smile and laugh throughout your day, as this can reduce stress and bring forth many other benefits.
4. Surround Yourself With Uplifting People
Having a support system to lean on during times of stress and anxiety is essential. When you feel depressed, it’s easy to isolate yourself from your family and social groups. Make it a point to spend more time with supportive family and friends. Engage with coworkers who share your experiences and remind you that you aren’t alone.
5. Find Fulfillment
Find time in your day to focus on yourself by journaling, reading or doing another activity that makes you feel fulfilled. Write down what stresses you out or brings you anxiety and work through those feelings with a friend or loved one. You can even volunteer your time at various organizations to help you feel valued for your energy and hard work. Volunteering is also a great way to help someone less fortunate than you and provide an opportunity to meet new people.
6. Take Care of Your Mind and Body
Taking care of your mind and body is one of the first steps to prioritizing your mental health. Though you have a busy schedule, make time to incorporate some physical activity such as yoga or an outdoor walk. Proper nutrition and adequate sleep are also essential because you need to be well-rested and energized to perform well at your job. Even the most minor task — such as completing basic hygiene steps or drinking water to stay hydrated — can set you on the right track.
7. Manage Stress
Stress is an inevitable part of everyone’s lives, but there are things you can do to deter it. Try meditating and being alone with yourself to quiet your mind after a stressful day at work. Meditation is a type of mindfulness-based stress reduction, which can decrease feelings of burnout, occupational stress, depression and anxiety.
8. Practice Forgiveness and Gratitude
Consider keeping a journal to write about what you are grateful for and unload any emotional burdens you may be carrying. Express your appreciation for the people in your life and what you would like to improve about yourself. When you make a mistake at work, try to write out your reactions and be kind to yourself. Remember that everyone feels emotional exhaustion at some point — so work on forgiving yourself if you do something wrong. This action will help you understand your behaviors and learn to notice patterns.
9. Change up Your Routine
If your daily routine is the same every day, try changing it up so your mind and body are not going through a constant, monotonous cycle. For example, try a new coffee shop before going to work, plan a weekend trip or see a movie after work. Even if your work schedule stays the same, consider what you can change outside of it to bring in more enjoyment and spontaneity.
Save time and get back to doing more of what you love to do
Finding ways to enjoy life — even your work life — can help improve your mental health. As a veterinarian, you’d likely rather spend time caring for your patients than doing administrative tasks, such as documentation. With Talkatoo, you can improve your daily workflow and efficiency by reducing your documentation time.
Talkatoo is a speech-to-text software that works with any device or application, jotting down your notes as you speak. With so many demands at your job, you can capture notes faster than writing or typing and spend more time with your patients. Talkatoo is a highly accurate, adaptable tool that fits your needs — helping you spend less time on your notes and more time enjoying your personal interests.
Book a demo to see how our cloud-based software can make your job easier.