Letter: 6 coping mechanisms for life as a veterinarian

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This reader was moved by a colleague's suicide to share his emotional coping mechanisms for veterinary students, associates and long-time DVMs.

This letter was received by dvm360.com in response to our coverage of Dr. Sophia Yin's suicide. It has been edited for publication:

I don't claim to be an expert on all of the potential factors that lead one to suicide. I am amazed however as to why it seems a mystery to people the factors that lead more of us in the veterinary profession, as opposed to the other medical professions, to such an end. The sheer number of stressors in our profession coupled with us being such an earnest and compassionate group makes us shoulder a considerable burden to our detriment.

School is where it starts

I have pre-vets, vet students and veterinarians on my Facebook page, and I can see from their posts the evolving considerations they face. From the self-imposed, almost frantic, rush to get to vet school, to the institutionalized pressure and poor support veterinary students undergo, to the realization after graduation that some clients aren't going to be very nice or appreciative of your efforts.

[In veterinary school] is where a lot of pressure comes to bear and where a lot of preconceived notions are instilled that radiate all through our careers. I joke that I only recommend vet school to people I don't like-really not something any sane person would want to go through twice. While I knew vet school would be difficult, what surprised me was the lack of support and caring: “Well, you're in, congratulations. Hope you survive the experience.” The schooling is already grueling and I'll admit the competitiveness amongst the students themselves was rather surprising and off-putting. You see that mirrored in the isolated single doctor practices throughout the country.

Vet school emphasizes students being perfect and knowing everything at the drop of a hat. When you get out, everything in our veterinary magazines exhort the same thing: Be perfect in your communications. Do things this way or you're wrong. Don't do things that way or you're wrong.

You're not perfect

If you read the advice columns and/or Consumer Reports, you'll find that when a scenario is presented a veterinarian or a veterinary team member are shown to have not been perfect in the way they handled a situation. Well, guess what, we aren't perfect, and while I agree we can all improve and strive for better, I think we are killing ourselves in this vain and mythological perception of perfection.

I'd like the opportunity to make a crazy claim: We're all human. Accept that. Some clients will like you, some won't. You can't possibly cater to every single whim and expectation clients place on you. It's impossible. Yet the message out there is that we can. And that, especially with the younger vets, is what's putting undo pressure on all of us.

What I tell myself

Here are a few things I have picked up as coping mechanisms:

1) You can't go home with the clients. They are adults. You have given them everything they need to make things better. It is up to them. You are not the only one involved in making everything work out perfectly.

2) You can't care more than the client. Well, you can, and you will. But, ultimately, you can't. Because there lie dragons and you will make yourself crazy.

3) You can only do your best. That's it. And that's a lot. It may not always make every resolution end well, but if you can say you did your best, then you're done.

4) There are things you can control and things you can't. You don't worry about the ones you can change, just go ahead and change them. And you don't worry about the things you can't, because you have no control over them. Let it go. Don't worry. Or, at least, don't worry so much.

5) Just because an owner is mad about something does not mean that you did something wrong.

6) It's okay to say “no.” You do not have to do everything for everybody. Find your balance. So many people, from our own clients, our employers, to rescue groups, to humane societies, want something from us. There are only so many hours in a day. Make sure you give time to yourself and your family. We're so involved in taking care of others, we forget to care for ourselves.

I wish I had the answers for the succubus of depression that so many people have to deal with. This profession is difficult to say the least. I hope many out there are reaping the rewards of being a veterinarian. If, however, you find that not to be the case, find outlets away from the job.

Take care of yourselves. Take care of each other.

Dean Scott, DVM

Tampa, Florida

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