4 Shocking Reasons Veterinarians Have A Huge Risk Of Suicide
The upshot of going into veterinary medicine: most of your patients are snuggly! Downside: You're far more likely to commit suicide. That seems like a disproportionate trade-off, doesn't it? Veterinarians kill themselves at four times the rate of the general population -- that's twice as likely to commit suicide as dentists and other medical practitioners. One reason: Veterinarians have enough student debt to rival their med-school graduate friends, but their salaries pale in comparison. One of our sources was staring down more than $400,000 in debt, and vets, as a rule, make less than pharmacists. That's only one reason, though ...
Veterinarians Are Frequently Targeted By Internet Hate Mobs
In 2014, New York veterinarian Shirley Koshi took her own life after a bizarre campaign of harassment. Not long after Koshi started her practice, a Good Samaritan brought in a feral cat for treatment. Then a local "cat colony" founder showed up and demanded the cat ... because she wanted to re-release it into a city park. Without proof of ownership, Koshi refused -- and her new business was picketed, while she became the target of trolling and abuse. As her expenses mounted and public attacks grew more vicious, Koshi no longer felt she could cope. The reaction from the cat colony founder and her group of supporters was gleefully awful:
"A human being is dead or whatever -- moving on, here's a full paragraph about Karl the cat."
Uninformed internet hoards react strongly and swiftly when somebody appears to violate one of their pet causes. Especially if it's a literal pet cause. Shockingly, outraged internet mobs can sometimes go a little overboard -- and wind up killing somebody. It's not a fluke: A colleague of Norah 's got raked over the coals on Facebook after a standard procedure went bad for reasons beyond her control. The animal was fine and the clinic covered the expenses to quiet the online furor, but Norah's colleague was traumatized by the grisly, inaccurate Facebook post that was shared more than 2,600 times. She decided to move out of state. Jennifer can relate all too well: A couple of months after Koshi's death, Jennifer had a bizarre run-in with a cat-owner from hell -- and it ultimately led to her shuttering the clinic she'd owned for five years, declaring bankruptcy, and moving -- you guessed it! -- out of state. Like Koshi, she was simply looking out for the cat.
"I had a cat up for adoption a long time ... an employee reached out to a previous client from a hospital she worked at, the person came in, interviewed with me ... and she was odd, but pet people are odd. I'm not going to hold that against somebody. I approved the adoption. Unfortunately my employee (misstated) there was no adoption fee ... (the new owner) ended up paying me the adoption fee, was disgruntled about it, ended up going to her previous veterinary hospital. The vet there padded the medical bill, charged her for unnecessary things, and diagnosed the cat with a non-existent ear infection ... she came back to me wanting her adoption fee back, the long and short is, I didn't adopt out an unhealthy cat. I had her bring the cat back."
The woman became belligerent and threatening, Jennifer says. A re-examination showed there was nothing wrong with the cat, despite the owner's claims. Jennifer says she began to worry about the cat's safety.
"There was a board-certified surgeon there with me (to verify). I was prepared, I had a check written for her to cover her adoption fee. I reimbursed her for everything she spent, and I kept the cat."
Unfortunately, the woman was a "professional" blogger with more than a passing interest in SEO. And she was pissed. She wrote her strange version of events, posted it to her personal blog, and got 85,000 hits that week.
And then all hell broke loose. Fake reviews appeared on the likes of Yelp and Google, with non-customers posting truly horrendous fake stories.
Jennifer: "I had people accuse me of taking their pets from the waiting room in the clinic and euthanizing their pets in the back ... One of the reviews said her husband was deployed in the military, she brought (her cat) in for basic checkup, and we euthanized it." None of it was true, but "I was personally getting threats, getting threats against my family, my home, against my pets, against my employees."
Jennifer's husband confirmed: "They posted our home address online, we had people driving by honking horns, throwing trash ... we got reviews from all over Europe, Australia, coming in by the dozen ... We had a guy from Iceland saying 'Burn it to the foundation!'"
The day after the post went live, Jennifer took her 40-minute commute to work, where a staff member told her that someone had called in, threatening to go to her house and hurt her pets.
"I had to call the police. Luckily I had great neighbors -- they sat in my driveway until the police got there ... I was terrified. More for my pets than anything else. We lived in a two-story home, and for about six months I had (my rescue dogs and cats) living on the second story, contained," in case someone attempted to throw something through a ground-floor window. "We bought an alarm system. I couldn't watch TV, I couldn't listen to the radio. One of my biggest pastimes: I love to read People magazine. I just couldn't do it. I just associated it with the news."
Jennifer lawyered up -- her attorney had also represented former presidential candidate John Edwards, so he knew a thing or two about damage control.
"We probably spent (about) $30,000. Our attorney squashed the story, and the story never really went out there."
She adds: "I will say after that happened, I lost a lot of gumption. One of the things we talked about with the attorney is that the online damage to our practice was not measurable; there was no way to go back and see how many people saw this."
Jennifer saw a dip in new clients and in business overall: "We had a few clients that did leave the clinic, they were clients that were waiting for me to come out with my side of the story. I never did that ... the problem was, I was working with an attorney, and I was advised not to go out there and share anything. I was under legal counsel, and if I said the wrong thing, I was going to put myself into a bigger hole."
Her accuser backed off when Jennifer's lawyer got involved, but from both a safety and financial standpoint, it wasn't worth it to sue the woman. All the negative press meant loss of revenue, which meant Jennifer was unable to sell her practice. On the two occasions when she had a serious buyer, the bank would not approve the loan because of the lagging numbers, which she believes were due to the bizarre social media campaign against her.
"Did I contemplate suicide? I'd be lying if I said I didn't ... I will say this: I think if I ever went through it again, I don't think I'd survive it. I really don't."
She and her family have since relocated, and things are looking up.
"It's amazing -- once it starts, it's people from all over the world," James, another of our vet sources, says. "They're not local. It's funny that's kind of part of the mob mentality, they don't see the person being targeted as a real person. It's this evil being that needs to be punished."
James is still getting the sharp end of the mob's pitchfork. He started a support forum for vets, and also a resource for pet-owners to better understand the industry.
"With me, it was a cat declaw group. And it wasn't that I was declawing cats, because I don't, it was that I have not publicly spoken out and said I don't agree with this. The reason is, I really do want to provide a platform for veterinarians to share their views. It's a divisive issue; I know what my personal beliefs are on it. But on my site, I talk about what it means to be a veterinarian. But that wasn't cool. Then it became, you have this platform and vets listen to you and you don't do the right thing. There were phone calls to the vet clinic where I work, tweets and emails, things like that."
He adds: "I don't mean to blow off people's real concerns. But there are instances when half the story is being told, or there's a lot of misplaced anger, and vets get blasted."
The American Veterinary Medical Association has begun to sound the alarm on cyber-bullying, and the veterinary community now takes the issue pretty damn seriously.
Obviously some veterinarians, like Shirley Koshi, have committed suicide specifically due to online harassment. But when we asked Dr. David Bartram -- who published the first study on the high rate of suicide in the veterinary field -- if the Internet had increased vet suicides, he said:
"There is no evidence to suggest that the suicide rate has increased in the past 15 years."
Meaning that, though it's certainly not helping, the heart of the issue predates social media.
You Deal With Extreme Loss And Death Daily
Every vet we talked with wanted to point out just how emotionally devastating it is to have to put some of your patients to sleep. And it often happens when death isn't medically necessary:
Norah explained, "Just today I had to process the potential of euthanizing a (patient) who is healthy, but having behavioral problems. Thing is, he is an angel with us and the home life sounded unsteady, so I wasn't comfortable with the idea."
But say she refused to put that misbehaving animal to sleep, and it mauled someone -- Norah's medical director pointed out that she would be at risk for NOT killing an animal.
"I was not happy and dreaded calling the owner. Fortunately they decided they'd rather do all they can to save him, and didn't want to euthanize. I provided all the information I could, and sent them to a boarded veterinarian behaviorist but I'm still feeling sick anyway."
James told us: "Those are the ethical battles that we have to face ... Do you say, I'm sorry, I'm not going to do that for you? And then she says, I'm going to take her to the shelter, and they're going to put him to sleep there. What are you going to do with that?"
This is one area where regular human doctors have it easier; no heart surgeon has to decide when to kill a patient. Pediatricians see some ugly stuff, but they never wind up arguing with somebody's parents about whether or not they should put their nine-year-old down for wetting the bed. Here's James:
"It's not like this happens all the time, but this does happen a lot. Behavioral things, like the cat is tearing up the leather furniture and my husband wants the cat put to sleep ... Honestly what I end up doing -- and you don't want to advertise this -- is I'll say, 'Give me the cat.' And they'll give me the cat, and then I've got this cat I don't want that pees everywhere, but ... I'll work with the cat and see what I can do. At least you give it a shot. But that's just another emotional burden."
You might expect every vet to take the noble route. But Norah points out:
"That is a risky endeavor. If you make a suggestion like that, and the owner follows through, you don't know if the owner will be forthcoming in the reason they are surrendering. If they aren't, and that animal bites someone and it gets traced back to you (the doctor) as the one who suggested it, then your ass is on the line legally. If the owner is truthful about why they are turning the pet over, then the shelter is just as likely to carry out the euthanasia you didn't want to do ... That's why my boss was telling me that it would be easier legally if I'd just go with it and live with it, than follow my conscience and say no ... I can't win. If that family wanted to euthanize, I could 1) do it and hate myself, [or] 2) say no and open myself to legal trouble and potentially a social media situation and possible career suicide -- and then hate myself for not having just done it in the first place."
Owners Can Get Ugly When You Talk Cost
Just because a veterinarian can offer a course of treatment for your beloved furry friend, that doesn't mean you can afford it. And unlike their human-treating counterparts, vets are not bound by law to provide life-saving treatment (although they definitely want to). Emergency rooms and hospitals can deal with patients defaulting on payment thanks to factors like insurance and government programs. Animal hospitals have none of these fallbacks (pet insurance exists, but few people carry it, and it's largely a reimbursement model) so if you can't get, say, $3,000 immediately, your pet is screwed. Animal hospitals have been burned by enough delinquent pet-owners that few (if any) animal clinics will offer payment plans anymore.
That's when things get personal in the exam room, even if a vet is trying their damnedest.
"Every (vet) has had people lash out in person," James says. "I had these guys come in and they had this dog that was just in terrible, terrible condition. They had $50. We're not supposed to do this, but sometimes when people have pets that pass away, and the pet was on medication, they'll give it back to the vet. And you're not supposed to (reuse) it, but in some cases it's perfectly fine."
"You're really not supposed to do this, but they (only) had $50 and their dog was going to die."
He dipped into his cache of leftover pills and stayed late to hand-feed the poor dog.
"I couldn't save the dog ... I told the guy the next day, and he was furious, and he was like, 'My dog was alive when I brought him there and you let him die!' He said, 'I'm gonna come down there and go to jail!' His bill was probably four or five hundred bucks, and I was just doing this because I wanted to try to help him, and then the dog dies. Every single veterinarian could tell you that story. I've no doubt."
The AVMA has even started to train vets on what to do in the case of owner aggression, Norah told us.
"People are incredibly sensitive about their animals, and they're incredibly sensitive about their finances, and you're mixing the two ... A human doctor, all they have to do is be able to recognize what's wrong with you and direct you to the correct specialist. They don't have to discuss money; they just bill you later."
But vets go over the numbers with you in-room. This is arguably how the medical industry should operate for humans, too, with the doctor being straight with you about cost. It's just that the vet can't continue with treatment unless you agree to those numbers, and pay on the spot.
James: "Veterinarians have huge amounts of debt coming out, and we make less than pharmacists. So you got literally six figures in debt ... it's the cheapest of the medical professions by far, and then people say 'You let my dog die because all you want is money.' It hurts so much! You get older, and your skin hopefully thickens up a bit, but these are big-hearted, compassionate people, and they don't have real thick skin."
That's not to say a vet can never fudge the numbers in the favor of a patient, but it's incredibly rare, and only possible if they own their own practice, as James does. He told us a heartwarming story about taking a hit to save a long-time client's cat from pancreatitis. (The client's wife was battling cancer.)
"Do I tell him 'I'm sorry, it's going to cost two grand'? Sometimes you can help people. So you do." He gave that client, and many others, free medical care. But he had to warn them not to tell anyone: "I've had people say, I'm going to tell everybody! And I say, 'No! You tell no one! If you appreciate what I did here, you will tell no one.'"
When Euthanasia Is An Option, It Starts To Look Like A Good One
Dr. Bartram: "Probably the biggest factor accounting for elevated suicide rates among veterinarians is their ready access to, and knowledge of lethal means. Vets are able to (react) swiftly and effectively to suicidal impulses."
Norah adds: "When you have to put down animals, and you saw them as a baby ... all my colleagues weep every time they euthanize. I'm actually the only one who doesn't cry when I do euthanasias ... I am killing something, and that is really shitty. Even if it's the best thing for them, you still feel like shit. One of the best ways for veterinarians to kill themselves is with their own euthanasia drugs. We have easy, ready access to drugs to kill ourselves. It makes the process even easier."
James doesn't break this downer streak: "Vets have access to a good way to kill themselves. We have a euthanasia solution that we use all the time ... if you work with horses, you've got plenty around ... I do think vets have a different view on death, because we do believe in humane euthanasia, and do see suffering as worse than death."
It's the same basic reason why suicide victims are twice as likely to be gun owners: Suicide is impulsive -- it's almost always a brief, passing urge. But if you've got the means ready at hand to pursue that impulse when it hits ...
And it's going to hit.
You know the worst scene in any movie? It's when the dog dies. Now imagine living that. Three times a week.
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For more insider perspectives, check out 4 Surprising Things You Learn After Considering Suicide and 5 Disturbing Things I Learned Working At A Suicide Hotline.
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