Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses and doctors have been receiving the lion’s share of attention, but how has the last year affected veterinarians? They’re not working on the front lines of the public health crisis, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced their fair share of heartache.
Several new studies indicate that vets are facing an increased risk of suicide. COVID-19 has been decimating practices and animal care clinics all over the country. But is hope on the horizon?
Watching Their Practice and Staff Waste Away
Veterinarians have been nudged in between a rock and a hard place over the last year or so. Medical care for animals isn’t exactly considered essential by some people. Fewer customers and pet owners have been coming through the door, so many vet doctors have had to let staff go or risk going out of business for good.
According to a recent survey from the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), nearly every practice in the country reported a decline in client traffic during April of last year. More than 60% of respondents reported applying for a loan via the Small Business Administration, and nearly 60% of practice owners forwent their own salaries to keep their staff on the payroll.
Dr. Mariana Pardo, a veterinarian from Long Island, says, “Unfortunately, it feels like it’s very cyclical that we are constantly grieving weekly, monthly. We are losing some type of veterinary staff, whether that is a veterinarian, a veterinary technician, a receptionist, someone that is working in the veterinary field.”
The number of veterinary practices in the red has started to decrease as more people bring in their pets for a check-up or treatment, but that doesn’t mean things are back to normal.
Making Hard Decisions on the Spot
Doctors and nurses typically have little choice in terms of whether they decide to treat a patient, especially in life-or-death situations.
But that’s not the case for vets. If the customer can’t afford surgery or treatment for their pet, it’s usually up to the vet to decide whether they will go ahead with the procedure, even if they won’t get paid for their services.
It becomes a daily moral quandary as vets ask themselves a series of tough challenges, such as whether they can afford to perform this surgery for free, and what will happen if they don’t provide care.
Dr. Caroline Jurney heads the organization Not One More Vet, a support group for vets in crisis. As she puts it:
“The people who go into medical fields are amazing. They want to help. The circumstances of life keep you from doing the things that you want to do, that you think are right. So, for instance, a pet owner can’t afford care. You know, they can’t afford the surgery their dog desperately needs. I’ve trained my whole life, I’ve dedicated my whole life to helping animals and this external circumstance prevents me from doing it. And let me tell you, nobody goes into veterinary medicine to make money.”
Just like other medical professionals, vets are no strangers to student loan debt. In 2016, the average education debt for veterinary students was $143,757.82.
“It is extremely expensive to go to vet school, and we do not make it up with what we make as veterinarians,” Pardo said.
That means some providers can’t afford to perform care for little to no cost, even if an animal’s life is on the line. But turning patients away comes with risks as well.
For Pardo, these interactions can be personal, emotional, and downright draining.
“We frequently get somewhat attacked. If they can’t pay for the medical care, then we are the ones that are guilted into ‘well, why did you go into this field? If you love animals, why did you become a doctor? Why can’t you cut the cost? You’re all about money,'” Pardo added.
The Rising Risk of Suicide
Between turning desperate pet owners away to crippling debt and letting staff go, vets are facing an increased risk of suicide during the pandemic.
The AVMA says that 1 in 6 vets have considered suicide at some point during their careers, and mental health experts say the pandemic is making it worse. Thanks to COVID-19, female vets are now 2.4x more likely to die from suicide than they were before the pandemic, while male vets are 1.6x more likely.
Padro knows these struggles first-hand. She lost one of her residents to suicide. She remembers him as a quiet person, but the pressure of working through the pandemic became too much.
Through her work at Not One More Vet, Pardo provides mental health resources for those in the veterinarian industry, so we don’t lose another provider to suicide.
Hopefully, veterinarian practices can get back to the way things used to be as the pandemic eventually recedes into memory.
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 and confidential support at 1-800-273-8255.