When your clientele is mostly depressed cat ladies, projected anger and bitterness will get to you eventually, when people put mistaken maternal love into pets that only supposed to live to ~15 years.
Pushed to the brink by mounting debt, compassion fatigue and social media attacks from angry pet owners, veterinarians are committing suicide at rates higher than the general population, often killing themselves with drugs meant for their patients.
On a brisk fall evening in Elizabeth City, N.C., Robin Stamey sat in her bed and prepared to take her own life.
To her side lay a stack of goodbye letters Stamey had written to her loved ones, including her parents who lived hundreds of miles away. Gripping a catheter loaded with a deadly dose of Beuthanasia-D and Telazol, euthanizing agents the 46-year-old veterinarian had brought home from her nearby practice, she exhaled slowly and began to bid the world goodbye. But as she turned to look at Gracie, her apricot toy poodle, Stamey started to sob.
She couldn’t do it.
“The only person I couldn’t explain my suicide to was my dog, who was sitting there looking into my eyes,” Stamey recalled. “She’s the reason I’m still alive.”
The path to rock bottom was an unexpected one for Stamey. A chipper animal lover who went back to school at age 36 to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian, she had previously worked in a few small clinics before eventually opening her own.
Pulling this off wasn’t easy; Stamey graduated from veterinary school with more than $180,000 in student debt. Her first vet jobs paid about $40,000 a year, forcing her to work long hours to scrape together enough money to get by.
These financial troubles were compounded by the strains of the job, which is known for taking immense emotional, physical and mental tolls on its professionals. But like many people who work in medicine, Stamey had always thought of herself as a caretaker and was afraid to ask for help. Instead, she swallowed her frustrations and soldiered on, ignoring the creeping depression that began to cast a shadow over her life and her work.
In 2007, everything fell apart. Burnt out from a near-decade of grueling work, Stamey was struck by crippling fatigue and painful internal swelling that doctors couldn’t explain.
This mystery ailment — diagnosed years later as Bartonellosis, or cat-scratch fever — stripped Stamey of the vigor that had once defined her, leaving her barely enough energy to crawl across her floor to feed her pet dogs, let alone run her practice.
Rumors that she was addicted to drugs and alcohol, fed by small-town gossip and social media exchanges between angry clients, spread through the community. Eventually, even friends turned on her.
“I didn’t lose an arm or a leg, so my illness and my withering mental health wasn’t real to them,” Stamey said, citing a tense phone conversation with an old friend as the moment that she decided to commit suicide. “I was suffering, alone, and didn’t know where to turn to for help. I just wanted it all to end.”
Stamey said she felt isolated in her pain at the time, but she has since learned a startling truth: Veterinarians are in the midst of a suicide epidemic of massive proportions.
On Jan. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released the first study to ever examine veterinarian mortality rates in America. The results were grim: Between 1979 and 2015, male and female veterinarians committed suicide between 2 to 3.5 times more often than the national average, respectively.
These findings not only reflect a higher suicide rate among all veterinarians but also suggest that women in the field are more likely to take their own lives, which starkly contrasts trends within the general population.
Considering the profession is becoming increasingly female-dominated (more than 60 percent of U.S. veterinarians and 80 percent of veterinary students are now female), the study’s authors suggested this trend could foreshadow even more veterinarian suicides in the years to come.
Additional research, including a 2015 CDC study that found 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide, have shaken the veterinary world to its core, exposing a growing crisis that few knew of and others had sought to ignore.
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