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Veterinarian suicide rates are high, Tulsa vet offers insight

PHOTO: Veterinarian and patient
Posted at 6:00 PM, May 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-17 23:27:34-04

TULSA, Okla. — Owning a pet can add an extraordinary amount of love and affection to your life.

But what happens when that animal must be put down for old age or health reasons? Veterinarians end their suffering, but that can leave them bearing weight when they can't save them.

The Oklahoma Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners reports over the past 20 years, approximately 11 licensed veterinarians died by suicide. Regular exposure to death, easy access to lethal drugs, and financial debt are a few of the reasons researchers believe suicide in veterinarians is up.

"I just see a ton more people right now going through enough in the veterinary community that are struggling," said Dr. Kimberly Huckaby with Bent Arrow Veterinary Hospital.

Huckaby said suicide is very real in her profession, she recently received word a colleague took his own life.

“There was a veterinarian here recently who committed suicide, and it hits us all," she said.

She said a lot of vets have Type A personalities.

“So, when you get faced with something that is overwhelming, there is that feeling of panic and feeling of failure that is very hard for someone who has a Type A personality," Huckaby explained.

She said one thing difficult for vets is being around so much death all the time.

"We get as attached to our clients as we do their animals, and when they have a big loss, and you can’t save that dog, cat, or hamster, you suffer the loss along with the client," Huckaby said. "You kind of do that over and over again until it really puts a toll on you as a person."

In October 2014, a group started called Not One More Vet. The goal is to create a safe place for vets to discuss their work and support each other. The group is now more than 20,000 members strong and is an official 501c3 charity providing financial support and mental health to veterinarians in need.

“I think with the NOMV movement, it gives you an area of people who sympathize and understand from where you come from," Huckaby said.

Dr. Huckaby said with easy access to lethal drugs, it's easy to see why some chose to end their suffering. 2 News reached out to the American Veterinary Medical Association, the organization is actively working to understand and address the specific pressures veterinarians face. It said it is committed to helping find solutions to address this mental health issue through collaboration and evidence-based practices.

This can be a heavy topic, but Huckaby said the best way to help is to reach out, see how they are doing, and let them know they are not alone. She said it is also important not to wait too long to bring your animal in for care.

In 2019, the AVMA released a study analyzing more than 11,000 veterinarian deaths between 1979 and 2015. It found almost 400 vets died by suicide during that time. The study also revealed female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than other general population members.

2 News received this statement from the Oklahoma Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners:

We are mandated to investigate all credible complaints and our mission to the citizens and pets of Oklahoma is to protect them from the illegal and improper practice of veterinary medicine. While performing our duty we want to help the veterinarians, but we also strive to protect the public and their animals. The majority of veterinarians are compassionate and empathetic when it comes to treating an animal but there are pet owners who believe veterinarians are only in it for the money, which the opposite is usually true. Since COVID the veterinarian has had to make many concessions while attempting to maintain and safely practice a good quality standard of care and the public at times can be difficult at best to deal with, they become angry and abusive to the veterinarian. Pet owners need to remember veterinarians are human too and they need to be treated just as you would your child’s pediatrician.

TONIGHT at 10 p.m. on 2 News, Sharon Phillips takes a look at how suicide is heavily impacting veterinarians and in what ways that impacts your family and your furry loved ones.

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