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The Euthanasia Catch-22

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

The Emotional Toll of Grief on Vet Staff

RUOK Day 2019 nearly upon us, but did you know that Veterinarians and Vet Nurses are more than 4 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population?

Mental health and suicide are not simple issues to understand and they can never be attributed to just one cause, and studies from the UK, the US and Australia have all pointed to a number of factors that influence the rates of mental health issues and suicide by vet staff.

Vet nurse struggles with the grief of euthanasia
Veterinarians and Vet Nurses are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population

These include dealing with the physical and emotional stress of patients and clients, the mental stress of reaching complex medical and clinical decisions on what is often incomplete information, financial stress (vets aren’t as well paid as many people think) and isolation, with many vets operating in single vet practices (or as the only vet on shift), and the exceptionally driven type of people who go study veterinary science with it’s more than 5 years of study requiring exceptionally high standards from the students.

But in addition to all these factors, there has been discussion in the last few years about what we are calling the Euthanasia Catch-22, and how that may be affecting the rates of suicide in the veterinary industry.

So, what is this Euthanasia Catch-22.

It’s no secret that despite vet staff’s best efforts, we see a lot of death. Every day veterinary staff are dealing with the pain and distress caused by needing to euthanise the loved family members of clients, and it takes its toll.

The emotional weight that vet staff are called on to deal with in these cases, attempting to console grieving and sometimes angry owners can have ongoing and severe impacts on their mental well-being

How do they cope with this?

Some don’t. They see euthanising pets as a failure, feeling that it is their job and their calling to save these precious family members, and they continue to feel this even though their ability to assist animals is often hampered by extremely understandable financial issues (the client just can’t afford the treatments required).

Dealing with the grief and pain of being unable to save animals they often know and love becomes too much for many vet staff.

A recent survey conducted in Australia found that up to 37% of vets are considering leaving the industry within the next year, while over 40% of vets would not recommend the industry to graduates.

Vet Nurse Mel takes discusses a complex operation with TAFE and University Veterinary students
40% of vets would not recommend the industry to aspiring students

Over time, the emotional toll simply becomes to much, leading to burnout, compassion fatigue and depression.

But some vets take a different approach. Faced with severely unwell pets and clients who are often unable to pay for the expensive treatments required, and they see euthanasia as a way of relieving pain and suffering.

When there are no other options, they see euthanasia almost as a blessing which will stop the animal suffering, and ensure the client doesn’t have to go through the emotional rollercoaster of watching their loved pet slowly sicken and die.

But recent studies have shown that this approach may be just as dangerous to vets as the first, as it normalises death in the veterinarians minds, meaning vets come to see death as an escape from pain and suffering, which increases their likelihood of suicide.

And herein lies the Euthanasia Catch-22.

On one side vets who cannot emotionally detach suffer poor mental health outcomes, while vets who can emotionally detach see death as a normalised way of dealing with suffering and grief.

Either way the rates of mental health issues and suicide in veterinary staff continue to increase.

There are no easy solutions to this. While psychologists are investigating ways to help those in the veterinary industry, to date there are no real solutions to the issue of confronting grief on a daily basis.

At the moment the best we can do is to come together, support each other, and remember to ask “RUOK?”.

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