Mental health and well-being in equine veterinary practice is low. Although reports over the last five years have shown some conflicting numbers around topics like suicide, the fact remains that veterinarians do suffer greater mental health challenges than the general population.
The Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study, released in 2018, looked at two key measures in their study of well-being in veterinary practice: serious psychological distress (i.e. mental health) and well-being. Based on a sample of 3,540 US-based veterinarians (both small and large animal), the study revealed that veterinarian well-being is only slightly lower than that of the general population. However, a more significant disparity exists for younger vets, especially as related to student debt. Furthermore, female vets reported lower well-being than their male counterparts.
While the overall conclusion was that 1 in 20 veterinarians are suffering serious psychological distress, the more important finding is perhaps the mental health treatment gap in veterinary medicine. This article will take a look at the specific factors affecting veterinarians’ well-being and provide a list of resources for each category to help you or someone you know find the support they need in the demanding profession of equine veterinary medicine.
Starting in the high-pressure environment of vet school and continuing into professional practice, stress brought on by the nature of the equine veterinary profession can take its toll.
According to Dr. Charles Figley of the Tulane Traumatology Institute at Tulane University, “Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”
For those in equine veterinary practices, compassion fatigue is a result of both internal factors and external realities. According to an article on VetBloom, compassion fatigue is especially tied to “the types of personalities the [veterinary] profession attracts coupled with erratic work schedules, suffering patients, [and] disappointed owners.” The article goes on to say that it is the responsibility of everyone employed in the veterinary profession to learn about this silent threat and take the necessary steps to support the health and well-being of the team.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue include:
Another major factor affecting well-being in equine veterinary practice is burnout. In her article for EquiManagement, DVM Colleen Best defines burnout as a syndrome characterized by three facets: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of low personal accomplishment.
She says, “We [equine vets] work tirelessly for the betterment of other people’s horses, for a reward significantly less than our human counterparts with increased risk of harm to ourselves. This selflessness is to be applauded to a certain extent. However, it can contribute to burnout because we believe that we must continue to meet the needs of others before ourselves.” Burnout also often results in decreased quality of patient care. And as this just piles on more stress from the results of such care, vets can feel like they’re running on a hamster wheel with nowhere to turn and a perception that there is no time to seek help.
Perhaps one of the most concerning aspects of low overall well-being in equine veterinary practice is anxiety and/or depression. Symptoms of anxiety and depression can often be exacerbated by things like compassion fatigue and burnout. Other factors include poor compensation in relation to the physically and mentally demanding workload, and an after-hours commitment that derails personal time and family life.
Of course, one of the most troubling findings relating to depression and anxiety in the veterinary field is the prevalence of suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and is on the rise. Some factors specific to the veterinary profession may include:
The most obvious reason why younger vets have higher levels of stress than their seasoned colleagues is the pressure of managing student debt on a modest income. According to the Merck study, the top three concerns in order were debt, stress and suicide, with debt ranking as “critically important” for 67% of respondents.
According to the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association (JAVMA), both student debt and starting salaries are on the rise. The latest figures for 2018 veterinary school graduates with debt show that about 35% borrowed $10,000 to $40,000 more than the total cost of education plus interest. Twenty-one percent borrowed $50,000 to $90,000 above that level. And a staggering 44% borrowed $100,000 or more over the cost of attendance plus interest.
And while starting salaries for new vets are also rising, an American Veterinary Medicine Association (AVMA) report shows that equine veterinary practitioners have had the lowest mean starting salaries of new veterinarians in private practice for over a decade.
Well-being in equine veterinary practice isn’t only mental. Another concern for equine vets is risk of injury. According to an article on TheHorse, equine veterinarians in the UK alone are seven times more likely to have a career-ending injury than a firefighter. In line with this data was a study on work-related injuries by UK-based equine vets where 2,292 injuries were reported by 495 veterinarians. A large portion of these injuries occurred despite the use of sedation or restraint. And injuries were usually sustained during lameness or dental exams.
Some of the most concerning statistics were around the long-term consequences of such injuries. Of the 620 total respondents, 31% reported chronic illness or injury due to equine veterinary work, 22% said their injuries had psychological effects, and 32% knew a colleague who had retired from veterinary work or been killed as a result of job-related injuries.
A lesser known but growing concern for equine vets is cyberbullying. Cyberbullying happens when horse owners take their frustrations to the internet, often leaving harsh or unfair comments on review platforms like Yelp or social platforms like Facebook. While this issue is perhaps better known in small animal practices, equine vets also experience online finger-pointing.
As stated in an article in TheHorse, “Word travels fast on Facebook and other platforms, where one negative comment can gain momentum, hurting the reputation and, therefore, the business of a vet or an entire practice. Knowing the potential of these media can cause veterinarians considerable stress.” The biggest impacts of cyberbullying are workplace tension and adverse mental effects such as depression and stress.
In addition to this, vets are facing an increased number of alleged malpractice lawsuits. Modern pet owners (of both companion and large animals) have access to more knowledge about medicine and treatments, so veterinarians are increasingly being held personally liable for the death of their pets.
Enabling better overall mental health and well-being in equine veterinary practice can largely be supported by a better work–life balance. According to a study by The Department of Equine Sciences at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, 87% percent of vets stated that their job had a negative effect on their private life. And while the good news is that 70% of those reported having positive support at home, another statistic was quite concerning: A staggering 78% considered work to be their hobby, which shows just how blurry this line is for many equine veterinarians.
The truth is that many equine vets don’t have a work-life balance because of the stress to pay off student debt and also prove themselves to new employers or to new clients. This results in the vet making themselves 100% available to clients, sometimes around the clock. And once clients expect this, it’s hard to change. And unfortunately, about five years into a vet’s practice when they finally feel established is the same time many start wanting to grow their family, resulting in added stress, feelings of guilt, and limited time for self-care.
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We know that equine vets are driven by a love of horses and a desire to do good. At Piavita, so are we. But we love vets, too. So if you’re a vet battling compassion fatigue, seeking a better work/life balance, or dealing with financial stress, know that you’re not alone and that there are resources and support available.
If you have any questions about this article or what we do here at Piavita, please feel free to contact us at any time.