It’s not just doctors and nurses. Veterinarians are also exhausted.

“For these people, and especially in these times, it’s their love,” she says, thinking particularly of owners who dress, groom and cook for their dogs. “It’s their being, it’s what they live for. And for vets, it’s very difficult for us to draw the line.

Even before the pandemic, vet mental health suffered from empathy overload and compassion fatigue. They carry the brunt of having to euthanize animals that could be saved, but their owners cannot afford the care. Some upset owners get downright abusive, berating vets or bullying them later online.

“I dare you to try to talk to a veterinarian who’s been in practice for more than five years and doesn’t know anyone who has committed suicide,” Gervais says. “I can unfortunately count on more than 10 fingers: classmates, colleagues, people I’ve dated.”

One in six veterinarians considered suicide, according to studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Female veterinarians are 2.4 times more likely die by suicide than the general population, and 80% of veterinarians are women. Male vets have an elevated risk of 1.6%. The most common means is euthanasia.

In the early months of the pandemic, Gervais could see things were getting worse. She helped organize a new non-profit organization called Veterinary Mental Health Initiativewhich offers free support groups and one-on-one help to veterinarians across the country.

All of the facilitators have doctoral-level training, says founder and director Katie Lawlor, who is also a psychologist, and they know all the issues that veterinarians care about.

“Burnout, compassion fatigue, coping with panic attacks, and how to communicate with supervisors, co-workers, and clients when you’re under extreme deadlines or very intense stress,” says- she. “And the loss of their own pets.”

Veterinarian Razyeeh Mazaheri inspects a cat at a shelter clinic near Chicago on March 7, 2022. (Marc Primiano)

The initiative helped Razyeeh Mazaheri overcome the anxiety she felt every day caring for animals at a clinic outside Chicago last year. The clinic was regularly double or triple booked. As a new vet — Mazaheri graduated from vet school last spring — juggling so many cases was terrifying.

“I just feel like if I make a mistake, it’s a problem. And if I make a mistake and kill something, it’s my fault,” she said, crying. “I just knew I was exhausted.”

Through support groups, Mazaheri was able to see that others shared her concerns and she learned tools to deal with them. The initiative has groups specifically for emergency vets, vet techs, recent graduates, like Mazaheri, and for longtime vets, like Kathy Gervais, who have over 20 or 30 years of experience.

“I happened to have people look at me when they saw me really tired, saying ‘Kathy, walk away,'” she said.

“I’m not ready to do it because, at the end of the day, I love my job. It is a vocation. It’s a passion. And it’s hard to walk away from that,” she says. “But if that’s going to kill me on the other hand, I hope I could just say, ‘OK, that’s it. I’m done.'”

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

About Hector Hedgepeth

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