By Julie Watts
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains information regarding death and suicide. If you are struggling with depression or have thoughts of suicide, there is help. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK(8255).

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Hour to hour, minute to minute, the life of a veterinarian is filled with highs and lows.

In a world where patients can go from sweet and cuddly, to scary in seconds, veterinarian Nicole McArthur never knows what her day will bring. She allowed CBS13 to follow her for a day, to get a glimpse into the life of a vet.

“Yesterday was a hard day for me,” Nicole said, recounting a particularly difficult appointment after she had euthanized a pet. She said her next patient, a dog, could sense her tension when she walked into the room. Nicole was grateful the pet’s parent understood and encouraged her to take a moment. Nicole said she sat down on the floor with the dog and, “we just sat there, shed a few tears, and I was able to collect myself and move on,” she said.

Nicole loves her job, but she has quit veterinary medicine twice because of the emotional toll.

“During that period of time, for whatever reason, I became Dr. Death. It seemed like every shift, two or three euthanasias,” she said.

And in a twist of fate, the day she decided to come back to veterinary medicine was the day the industry lost an icon, world-renowned UC Davis Veterinarian Sophia Yin.

“I was heartbroken. I was devastated,” Nicole said. “She was somebody,” she paused, searching for the right words, “who is just what you aspire to be as a veterinarian.”

It wasn’t until days later that Nicole learned that Yin had taken her own life.

“To think that she felt that that was her only way out… made me very sad,” Nicole said.

Yin’s death shed light on the dark side of veterinary medicine and sparked an important conversation because Yin was not alone.  The CDC found male veterinarians are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than the general population. Female vets are three-and-a-half times as likely to take their own life.

“There are a lot of different factors that influence this issue,” UC Davis veterinarian school psychologist, Zachary Ward, explained.

He notes that veterinary medicine is a career focused on helping and healing and putting the needs of others first.

“When you’re the one that everyone comes to for support, it can be very difficult for you to be the one who allows yourself to ask for help when you need it,” Ward said.

He pointed out that when someone loses a pet it can be one of the worst days of their life. But for a vet, “it’s something they experience several times a day, every day.”

Nicole adds, “it’s hard to go through something that emotional and then have to turn around, ‘Hi, I’m Dr. McArthur. How’s your puppy?’”

But she stresses that compassion fatigue is only one small factor contributing to the increased risk of suicide among vets. She also points to a growing student debt among vets. While figures vary, the average student debt for vets is around $150,000, which is well over two times the average starting salary for a vet.

In a profession where the inability of pet owners to pay for your services can mean the difference between life and death, vets face an added emotional toll of asking people to pay for their services.

“It becomes difficult when people can’t afford things and they become angry,” Nicole said.

She also points to an increase in cyberbullying against vets. A woman in New York recently took her life after an online campaign.

The CDC points to several factors likely contributing to the increased risk of suicide amount vets, including:

• Demands of practice such as long work hours, work overload, and practice management responsibilities.
• Ever-increasing educational debt-to-income ratio.
• Poor work-life balance.
• Access to euthanasia solution used for animals and the training to calculate a dose that could also be lethal in people.

However, a recent report identified that access to euthanasia drugs might be one of the most significant contributors.

“If you take that factor out of the equation,” Nicole points out, “our suicide rate is the same as the general public.”

The study notes, vets become experts in dosing. “We’re the only profession that is legally allowed to end a life,” Nicole adds. “But we see it as a way to end suffering.” So, she points out that it’s not a stretch to understand why some have used it as a way to end their own suffering.

The CDC concluded increasing administrative controls over the euthanasia drugs could be a “promising prevention strategy.” There is a push to increase controls over euthanasia medicine, including a campaign called “4-Eyes Saves Lives” encouraging the use of a two-person protocol.

“In human medicine, there are a lot of efforts put in place to regulate specific drugs,” Ward added.

At vet schools, like UC Davis, they’re also taking a proactive approach, teaching self-care and emotional health tools early on.
Ward says that community is also crucial along with ensuring vets know that they are not alone.

That’s what Sophia Yin’s death taught many, like Nicole.

“I remember thinking, I am not alone in all this that I’m feeling,” she said. “And it was very empowering to feel that way.”

Yin’s death and the conversations it sparked prompted Nicole to start the organization Not One More Vet (NOMV). They’re now approaching 21,000 members worldwide.

NOMV is a largely-online community where vets can vent, seek advice, share their struggles and triumphs. And, yes, every now and then, save a life.

“It makes me feel hopeful that maybe this problem that our industry has had for so long, maybe there will be a paradigm shift… and we’ll be able to be the generation that has a decrease in our suicide rate and mental illness,”‘ Nicole said.

After our interview, Nicole sent us an email saying she learned they lost another colleague that night. But she noted, a few posts down, another woman got the support she needed from the NOMV community. We leave you with an excerpt from her email:

“I arrived home from my shift on Monday night, sat down with a glass of wine and perused [Facebook]. I was saddened to read that we lost a colleague in Illinois to suicide. And my heart broke for his family, his friends, his colleagues.

A few posts down the feed was a plea from a member who confessed that she was struggling. It was after midnight, yet within 10 minutes she received 50 comments from veterinarians around the world. Posts filled with genuine love, concern and hope. And I sat in awe of this beautiful community that I am fortunate to know.”

If you are struggling with depression or have thoughts of suicide, there is help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free number, 1-800-273-TALK(8255) will connect you with a certified crisis center in your area. 

WEB EXTRA: See a day in the life of a vet

Julie Watts