Suicides by Veterinarians are Rising in the ‘No Kill’ Era

ANIMAL WATCH-Based upon the Best Friends Animal Society announcement last year that LA Animal Services' shelters were almost "no kill" and the entire U.S. is moving toward that same goal by 2025, veterinarians should be anticipating a positive future with increased clientele and revenue and a growing demand for quality pet care.

 

However, that's not what statistics by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) indicate. Results of the first mental health survey of U.S. veterinarians showed that nearly one in 10 U.S. veterinarians experience serious psychological distress, and more than one in six have contemplated suicide since graduation. 

The results were based on answers from an on-line anonymous survey of more than 10,000 practicing veterinarians -- 69 percent of whom are in small animal practice -- and revealed that 6.8 percent of males and 10.9 percent of females in the profession have serious psychological distress compared with 3.5 percent and 4.4 percent of U.S. male and female adults. 

Also alarming is that 14.4 percent of males and 19.1 percent of females who are veterinarians indicated they have considered suicide since graduation. This is three times the U.S. national mean.

Researchers surmised that "attempted suicides" may not show this same ratio because, with access to lethal drugs and proficiency in euthanasia to end the lives of suffering and elderly animals, it is likely that more "attempts" by veterinarians are successful than the general population, leaving fewer to respond to that question. 

SOCAL GRIEVES THE LOSS OF TWO FEMALE VETERINARIANS 

In fact, during the three-month period from the end of November 2017 to mid-February 2018, two beautiful and successful young female veterinarians in Santa Barbara, California, sent shockwaves through their community and industry by committing suicide. 

The first, Dr. Tiffany Margolin, (photo above, right) was from Los Angeles. She graduated from North Hollywood High School, attended Cal Poly Pomona, graduated from UC Davis and was running her own mobile veterinary service, "From the Heart." On November 26, 2017, Dr. Margolin ended her life. A friend wrote on her Facebook page, "Dear Tiffany - May you find more Peace in Heaven than you were able to find here on Earth." 

The second was Dr. Amanda Lumsden, (photo above, left) who graduated from James Martin High School in Arlington, TX and then from the University of Texas. She completed her studies at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2008, and owned a successful mobile clinic for felines, Cat Calls Mobile Veterinary Service.   

Both were loved and respected by clients and friends, who were stunned and reported that neither showed outward signs of being unduly distressed or disturbed. But veterinarians, like all who work in caring professions, develop the ability to mask their feelings and/or may not realize the depth of their depression. 

On December 31, 2017, Dr. Lumsden's final public post on Facebook was a heartfelt plea for someone to adopt a homeless cat named Cupid. 

On February 14, 2018, her death by suicide was mourned by a post stating, "Intelligence and beauty were the first things one would notice but behind those beautiful blue eyes hid a sorrow that time could not heal." 

ARE VETERINARIANS PREPARED FOR THE TOLLS OF PRACTICE? 

Were either -- or both -- of these women disillusioned and/or exhausted by oppressive stress of running a business while providing the necessary compassion for the animals who needed their care but are often brought to the veterinarian far too long after the onset of symptoms to be saved, or worn out by clients who drained their energy? Or, were the causes of these two tragedies unrelated to their work? 

On December 16, 2017, Dr. Margolin's Yelp review page shows a perturbed responder and defender rebuking in advance any attempt at dark online reviews, where invalid complaints can be deadlier to the veterinarian's reputation than for many other professions. The post states: 

Anyone upset about this Company should know that the Owner tragically passed a few weeks ago. So - no, your calls will not be answered or returned. No - no one is controlling the emails, notices, etc. So if you continue to get notifications.... please, give the poor woman & her mourning family a break! She. Is. Dead! So save your crappy Yelp reviews for a business owner that can actually reply to you, fight back, make it up to you or just straight up has a Goddam heartbeat!  

TWO EARLIER SUICIDES BY HIGH-PROFILE FEMALE VETERINARIANS 

In 2014, a duo of suicides by high-profile female veterinarians caught America off-guard and left worldwide followers in shock. 

The Sacramento Bee reported, "Dr. Sophia Yin, a veterinarian and internationally recognized pioneer in the field of animal behavior as it relates to training pets, died on Sept. 28 of suicide at her Davis home, according to the Yolo County coroner’s office. She was 48." 

Dr. Yin was a well-respected veterinarian and animal behaviorist. However, she was reportedly despondent over business issues and hanged herself. 

Earlier in 2014, New York veterinarian, Dr. Shirley Koshi, 55, was sued for taking in a sick, stray cat and nursing it back to health by a woman who claimed ownership because she had been feeding it in a NY park. Activists were incited to protest in front of Dr. Koshi's Gentle Hands clinic and attack her reputation online. 

Dr. Koshi was forced to close her practice after the costs of the lawsuit and the loss of revenue from her recently opened clinic as unknown detractors destroyed her reputation. She was found dead on February 16 in her in her Upper East Side apartment from an "overdose," according to NYPD. A clinic worker said the lawsuit, online attacks against the veterinarian, and financial problems “drove her (Dr. Koshi) over the edge.” 

This was an extreme case of cyberbullying by a group called The Veterinary Abuse Network, says the AVMA. 

CYBERBULLYING - LIVING IN FEAR 

This AVMA page, "Fighting the Cybebully -- How Harassment Can Affect your Practice," should be read and archived by everyone in any business or practice and beyond. Attacks on shelter veterinarians by rescuers, who should be part of the solution rather than the problem, are far too prevalent and debilitating. 

Cyberbullying can happen to anyone at any time. This link provides resources to combat an attack, including the section, Creating a climate that averts bullying. 

U.S. Legal Definitions describes cyberbullying, also known as cyber-harassment, as "the use of email, instant messaging, and derogatory websites to bully or otherwise harass an individual or group through personal attacks." 

Cyberbullying can also be used to threaten, embarrass, or frighten, and can even result in physical harm to its victims. 

Department of Justice statistics reveal that some 850,000 adults, most of them female, are targets of the practice each year. It has been shown to make victims feel sad, hopeless, or depressed, according to an article published in Developmental Psychology. And, it is on the rise. 

One veterinarian reported, “I was getting threats on Facebook. People were recommending that (the bully) hold an AK-47 to my head,” Dr. Kimberly May, then-director of professional and public affairs in the AVMA Communications Division, said, “[Readers] get upset and don’t stop to think there’s another side to this story, and they just jump on the veterinarian. It’s an Internet lynch mob mentality...And when you throw in a pet, any threat or perceived threat to them, people get their ire up quickly.” She also points out that often the issue has absolutely no effect on the cyberbully contributors -- who may not even be in the area. 

ANALYZING THE SUICIDE RATE IN VETERINARIANS 

U.S. male veterinarians have a suicide mortality almost twice as high as the general population, writes Gary Evans, however, females are the rising demographic in this field of medicine and already have a fourfold higher suicide rate than their male colleagues, according to the CDC. 

Currently, around 80% of U.S. veterinary students are female, and they currently comprise more than half of practicing vets. 

"The reasons for the gender difference are not completely understood, it could be that women are more susceptible to the contributing factors that lead to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation in veterinary medicine," says Suzanne Tomasi, MPH-VPH, DACVPM, a CDC EIS officer. 

“Some of the things include the demands of practice that include long work hours and work overload, along with practice management responsibilities, managing client expectations and complaints.” 

"It’s also possible that, since men have dominated the field over the earlier years studies, more of their deaths may have been attributed to causes other than suicide," she concluded. 

THE HARSH REALITY OF VET MED… 

I am including a few quotes from an important blog post by an unidentified veterinarian which is EXTREMELY important to anyone who is considering becoming a veterinarian or has a child who "loves animals." (At some point, many -- especially female -- children want to be a veterinarian, inspired by the kind person who makes the family pet well.) 

I remember being a young child and dreaming one day of becoming a veterinarian. The thought of working with animals brought me great joy, and I longed to save every furry creature that came across my path. . . Yet I believe there are a lot of misconceptions about my field of expertise by the masses…and even by those who aspire to stand where I stand now. 

People forget that our hearts break when we see an animal who is suffering, knowing there is little we can do to save them because the owner waited too long to get them into the hospital. We lose sleep over the cases of abuse and neglect that we see. The forced smiles on our faces to prevent clients from knowing that we just euthanized a pet moments beforehand are painful to put on. 

And to those who are veterinarians in the making: think long and hard about why you want to do this. If you’re here to make money, you are sorely mistaken – expect to have human medical school student loan bills on a salary that is about 25% of what a human doctor makes. Expect to work long hours, not get a lunch, and stay late after work.  Expect to witness a lot of very sad and depressing cases. If you don’t think you can handle that, then I suggest you seek another career path. Our field doesn’t need another statistic. (Read more here.)  

REDUCING STRESSORS FOR VETERINARIANS - COMPASSION FATIGUE 

“The stressors are very real,” explained Dr. Lex McKenna, who operates Santa Barbara’s Coastal Mobile Veterinary, and knew both Dr. Margolin and Dr. Lumsden. "While they’re empathetic animal lovers, veterinarians also tend to possess Type A personalities, or be perfectionists," she told the Independent." They’re driven and determined and want to fix every ailment just right. So when treatment eludes them, it’s extremely difficult, said McKenna, especially when they lose patient after patient, a hazard unique to their particular medical field." 

Dr. Kathleen Ayl, a psychologist and grief-support specialist has written a book, When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession, which has helped start the conversation on the critical need for aspiring and practicing veterinarians to learn about "compassion fatigue" before beginning their careers and to understand ways to prevent burnout once they get their licenses. “It’s just a very unique, incredibly difficult field,” she said.  

THE "NO KILL" MOVEMENT AND THE VETERINARIAN OATH 

We also need to also look at the pressure of the "no kill" movement and the illusion of empowerment it bestows on those who "rescue" animals and demand that even old, suffering or behaviorally unsuitable animals must be kept alive, and the stress of fear of advocates of this philosophy attacking – cyberbullying -- veterinarians (in shelters or private practice) for acting in the best interests of the animals, rather than acquiescing to political influences. 

In 2010, the AVMA Executive Board amended the Veterinarian's Oath to clearly identify animal welfare as a priority of the veterinary profession. 

The newly revised section of the oath—the committee's additions appear in italics -- reads as follows: 

"Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge." 

"From today forward, every graduate entering our profession will swear an oath not only to protect animal health but also welfare; to not only relieve animal suffering but to prevent it. That's a powerful statement defining ourselves and our responsibilities, not a vague symbol," Dr. J. Bruce Nixon, AWC chair-elect, said about the Executive Board action. 

And, we must remember the haunting words of the unidentified veterinarian who posted in, "The Harsh Reality of Vet Med...People forget that our hearts break when we see an animal who is suffering, knowing there is little we can do to save them because the owner waited too long to get them into the hospital. We lose sleep over the cases of abuse and neglect that we see.”  

The public must do its share to help our pets' true best friend, his or her veterinarian, and not take out our grief and frustration on them because we sometimes don't see or recognize the suffering soon enough or clearly enough or because they cannot extend a life that is already lived. Let's thank them for taking this oath and living by it.

 

(Phyllis M. Daugherty is a contributor to CityWatch and a former Los Angeles City employee.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.