Monday, November 16, 2015

Off Topic Talk: Mental Health and the Veterinary Profession

Recently, my vet school posted an article announcing the employment of a new psychologist available to counsel veterinary students free of charge. For those who are unfamiliar with the statistics, substance abuse, depression, and suicide are rampant problems within the veterinary medicine community. 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide. This is a high pressure profession where we are tasked with not only treating a variety of species, but also pleasing their owners; it is sometimes a tight rope to walk between saving a patient and maintaining a happy client. You would think counseling would be an obvious first line of defense, but instead students were told to "suck it up", "keep the faith", and one alumni put it quite bluntly:  "Yet another example of babying these students and shielding them from the real world. If they can't handle vet school find another profession. We don't want you. I sure wouldn't ever hire you.". The stigma around mental illnesses, and even more so, the stigma of seeking help, has to end. We have lost too many veterinary students and veterinarians to suicide in the last year. Mental illness is no more a choice than developing arthritis or cancer; it is a chronic, insidious disease, that, without help, can sneak up and overtake you.

The pressure cooker environment begins in pre-veterinary programs in undergraduate schools: GPAs of over 3.6 and 1000s of veterinary volunteer hours are considered "competitive" in a profession where 1 out of 1000 applicants are admitted into 1 of 23 schools in the United States. From there, these incredibly bright individuals, who may have never seen a C in their lives, are placed into the classroom up to 40 hours a week, and are expected to study 2-3 hours for every hour spent in class, in addition to maintaining a semblance of a functioning personal life. Friends outside school seem to carry on with their lives: getting engaged, married, buying homes, earning promotions, while we sit in the classroom so that we can chase our dream. Many students, including myself, find ourselves questioning whether we made the right choice, whether we are meant to be here, and if there is any meaning in what we are trying to accomplish. And at times,the light at the end of the tunnel is incredibly dim. The average vet students graduates 6 figures in debt; starting (and future) salaries are generally 1/3 of our peers who graduate from human medical school with similar training.

I, myself, never expected to get this far; I am 1 in 6, but thankfully, with a strong support network, horses, counseling, and medication, I am now the closest to being "mentally sound" as I have ever been. I say this because I am a survivor, and I am stronger for it; I have found my passion and my professional calling and that drives me through the rough, dark days. Students need to be educated about their options now, and learn to develop coping tools before their first euthanasia, their first mistake in practice, before they decide pills or alcohol are their only relief.

The work of a veterinarian is difficult, taxing, and at times, thankless. We are there at the highest points of your animal's life, and we are there to usher them into their next life; we care for all their ailments and aches in between. In order to provide optimal care for your animals, we need to provide care for ourselves. I am so incredibly proud my school has made a step in the right direction- by normalizing seeking out counseling in times of mental distress. What chance does our profession stand if we are not supportive of each other?

- K&C

No comments :

Post a Comment