Focus on mental health in veterinary medicine
By: Gina Gotsill, SAGE Director of Recruiting
Burn out. Depression. Suicide. Pet owners probably don’t connect these words to their family veterinarian and the specialists who help their pets through severe illness. And most laypeople would be surprised to hear that veterinarians have a high suicide risk, compared to the general population in the United States and abroad.
But the reality of burn out, depression and suicide has been part of a larger conversation in veterinary medicine for the last decade. And the conversation is becoming even more urgent and widespread, from peer-reviewed journals to mainstream media. In May 2021, the Associated Press reported that a year into the COVID pet boom, veterinarians are overwhelmed and facing severe burnout. And in March, veterinarians openly discussed the mental health crisis in a recorded video posted on DVM 360 after one of their colleagues committed suicide.
Research has shown that a variety of issues lead to depression and mental distress and include:
- High student debt
- Knowledge of stress and suicide levels among veterinarians
- Clients not wanting to pay for services
- Ethical conflicts and moral distress (for example, with inappropriate requests for euthanasia)
Joys and challenges
“Veterinary work is extremely rewarding and satisfying – it’s an amazing feeling to help an animal to feel better,” says Corinne Maldonado, RVT, the Recruiting Operations Manager at SAGE. Maldonado previously worked in the Critical Care department at SAGE Dublin. She says veterinary work can also be very demanding and emotionally challenging.
“Animals don’t have a voice,” Maldonado says. “They can’t tell you when they’re hurt, or if they are being abused. So it is up to us to piece those things together based on what we see. We see some terrible things, and it can be difficult on a day-to-day basis.”
How is the industry addressing these challenges and finding solutions? One way is by talking openly about the problem.
“There has been a huge stigma around mental health, but I think it is lessening now,” Maldonado says. “We need people to talk to, and we need to get help.”
Someone to talk to
Hospitals like SAGE are adding Veterinary Social Workers to their teams to help doctors, technicians, other hospital staff and clients work through difficult experiences and feelings. Veterinary Social Workers are similar to social workers in human health care settings – they serve clients and staff and provide a shoulder to lean on when life becomes difficult, or worse, unbearable.
Dr. Mike Kiselow, DACVIM (Oncology) is the Specialty Medical Director at SAGE Veterinary Centers in Campbell, and he has been following the issues around depression, burnout and suicide in the veterinary industry for the last 10 years. He has also been leading the conversation to bring a Veterinary Social Worker to SAGE.
“Adding these professionals to the team can be an asset to doctors and clients because they’re trained to look for verbal and other signs of emotional crisis and to take steps to keep the issue from escalating,” Kiselow says.
“It’s one thing we can do,” he says. “As an industry, we all need to shine a light on things that are tragically plaguing our profession, and to challenge people to ask why this is occurring.”
 Witte, et al., Suicides and deaths of undetermined intent among veterinary professionals from 2003 through 2014. JAVMA, September 1, 2019.
 Volk, et al., Executive summary of the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study. JAVMA, May 15, 2018 and Moses, et al., Ethical conflict and moral distress in veterinary practice:
A survey of North American veterinarians. Journal of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 2018.