In 2014, veterinarian Jason Sweitzer started his 10-minute drive home from the clinic where he routinely treated animals that had been stabbed, shot, abused and made to suffer other horrors.
This time, his thoughts drifted to suicide.
“No one else was on the road. What if my car just veered off the highway?” Sweitzer recalled.
Hundreds of other veterinarians have traveled the same path as Sweitzer.
Many veterinarians face a mountain of debt after medical school and struggle to cope with the trauma endured by pets, the emotional distress and stressful social interactions in a line of work where the patient can’t speak, and pet owners facing life and death decisions.
Veterinarians are 2.7 times more likely than the general public to die by suicide, according to a 2020 study from Merck Animal Health in partnership with the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Female veterinarians have higher levels of suicidal thoughts, but male veterinarians have a higher rate of suicide attempts, the study found.
Shortly after Sweitzer’s scare, he became a founding board member of Not One More Vet, an organization working to help prevent veterinarian suicide. It was founded after a California veterinarian died by suicide in 2014.
Jordan benShea, the executive director of the VIN Foundation, has seen some of the struggles veterinarians share with the network firsthand.
“I think the two most challenging factors in the veterinary profession right now are mental health and student debt, and they play off each other,” benShea said.
The VIN Foundation’s student debt center includes a map that lists general costs for all veterinarian schools within the U.S., the U.K., Australia and the Caribbean.
The most expensive U.S. school is the Midwestern University College of Veterinary Medicine in Glendale, Arizona, where the average cost is $421,137.
Medical schools of any kind come with steep prices, but one factor makes it more difficult for those in animal medicine to climb out of debt: Veterinarians face that debt while making about half what doctors in human medicine earn.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average salary of a veterinarian in California in 2019 was $116,440, while surgeons and physicians in the state on average made $208,740 annually.
Nationally, veterinarians make an average of $104,820 annually; in Arizona the average is $107,700.
Mental health concerns have led to support groups like VIN Foundation’s Vet4Vet organization, a counseling program offering worldwide confidential peer support for veterinarians.
Paul Pion, a board certified veterinarian and a founder of the Veterinary Information Network, remembers his internship at the Animal Medical Center in New York City in 1983. Some nights he was the only veterinarian on duty from midnight to 8 a.m.
It was traumatic for a new graduate. There were days after rough shifts when Pion went windsurfing and almost didn’t turn back to shore.
Other board members could testify to the hard days on the job as well. Many of the accounts led back to one memory: euthanasia.
Sweitzer graduated in 2009 from the prestigious UC Davis Veterinary School, where in one clinic, the colored dye of the euthaniasia drugs was changed frequently so it wouldn’t be as traumatic for the veterinarians.
UC Davis’ VetMed department has its own counseling services to serve student needs, and coordinator Dr. Zachary Ward has heard students share their anxiety, fear and grievances. A major concern he has involves the trauma of putting down animals on a sometimes daily basis.
Common responses to an animal being put down include relief that they “aren’t in pain anymore” or they’re “in a better place.” Such comments can begin to bleed into veterinarian philosophy, Ward said.
“Veterinarians have much greater access to the means that they would use to end their life, and are quite literally trained on how to euthanize another living thing,” he said.
“They’ve really come to understand that euthanasia can be a viable treatment plan for suffering and it can be a natural next step for them to think that it could be a viable treatment plan for their own suffering.”
A common misconception between veterinarians and clients is how expensive animal medicine is.
More than 70 percent of respondents claimed that scathing reviews and customer’s unwillingness to pay for animal health care were a major concern in the veterinary field, according to the survey by Merck Animal Health.
What many owners don’t realize, benShea said, is that some of their pet’s medical bills are significantly high because pet owners lack health insurance.
According to a 2020 research report from IBISWorld, as little as 3 percent of companion animals in the U. S. are insured. A survey conducted by LendEDU stated that those without insurance had an average expense of $1,458 annually on their pet’s medical expenses.
Around the country, the demand for mental health assistance in the veterinary field is high. UC Davis’ VetMED counseling program is expanding, the VIN Foundation receives emails from veterinarians asking for help and Not One More Vet has grown to more than 20,000 members in six years.