Veterinarian depression: what is it?

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Page last updated: 10/11/2022

Veterinarian depression: what is it?

In this blog we will discuss what veterinarian depression is.

We will also briefly discuss what causes it, what are the signs of empathy fatigue, and how can a vet cope with depression. 

Veterinarian depression: what is it?

Veterinarian depression refers to the high risk of depression amongst veterinarians. Major depressive disorder is very common among veterinarians and it is often regarded as veterinarian depression. 

In comparison to the general public, veterinarians are 4 times more likely to commit suicide, caused due to depression, stress, fatigue and burnout. 

In 2010 researchers concluded that male vets were 2.1 times more likely to die by suicide and the female veterinarians were 3.5 times more likely tin comparison to the general public.  

In a survey that was conducted in 2019, out of the 11,000 vets that are present in the US, 9% have struggled with psychological stress, 17% have suffered from suicidal thoughts and intentions and 31% have experienced a depressive episode. 

In 2020, a study was conducted in Germany, where depression, suicidal ideation and risk of suicide was compared between the German veterinarians and the general public. 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), a leading publication used for diagnosis of mental disorders by mental health professionals, Major depressive disorder or depression is a serious mood disorder.

Depression is a  serious mood disorder where people affected by it experience persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. 

Apart from these emotional distress, people with depression can also experience physical symptoms such as chronic pain, or changes in their behaviour such as social withdrawal or slowed movements.

Depression in veterinarians is caused by empathy fatigue and stress- due the the nature of their work, the continued exposure to death, animal abuse, suffering, as well as due to the gruelling work life that they have.

What is Empathy fatigue?

The most simple way to understand empathy fatigue or compassion fatigue is the inability to care. It is usually understood as a defence mechanism and your mind’s way of telling you to care for yourself.

Empathy fatigue is a negative consequence of repeated exposure to stress and trauma and can manifest both in terms of physical or emotional symptoms,

Vets have to deal with a variety of cases on a daily basis. Many of these cases involve treatment of abused animals, neglected animals, pets that have some chronic illness that may not be treatable and euthanasia. Vets euthanize at least one animal a day and this can be traumatising for the vets as well. 

The cause of Empathy fatigue according to Ugo Uche for PsychologyToday involves the denial of painful or difficult feelings triggered by negative or traumatic events such as the death of a patient for vets. 

In most cases, vets and others in the medical fields often become hardened due to their experiences, forcing themselves to not feel.

So a person who has not allowed themselves to feel any emotions as a way to preserve themselves cannot adequately feel empathy  for others even though they might understand what empathy is.

Some of the signs of empathy fatigue include:

  • You are critical and judgemental of others, yourself, and the world. Kimberly Drake for psychcentral writes that people with low empathy may excessively criticise others. They might even blame others and also label or judge people without understanding others. 
  • You find it difficult to connect with others or relate to others. People with depression who struggle with empathy fatigue also lack the inability to put themselves in others’ shoes and feel like they cannot relate to other issues that people bring up.
  • Inability to see other’s point of view because people with depression struggle with immense pain and suffering that they are unable to understand that people are suffering too or that others have life experiences that are also negative. This is because of their egocentric worldview. 
  • You have trouble understanding how your behaviour affects others. Low empathy may result in you not realising that their actions can affect others. Because depression often involves so much emotional distress, when confronted by others you might have a hard time accepting that you are capable of hurting other people because of your behaviour. 

It is likely that you think that because you are hunting so much, there is no possible way to hurt others- but most people with depression do not realise that some of their behaviours affect people.

  • Difficulty maintaining relationships. A lack of empathy and negative cognitive tendencies like egocentrism can make you seem self-centred in your bid to protect yourself. This can lead to constant friction in relationships because you find it hard to understand others and at the same time be understood by them. This can result in a lack of meaningful relationships without much awareness.
Veterinarian depression: what is it?

How to cope with depression for veterinarians?

Here are some of the ways by which a vet can manage and care for their mental health:

Develop Awareness

The first thing you can do once you notice or have been told that you seem to lack compassion is to take time to pay attention to how we feel, think, and behave. 

While you could be afraid of these difficult feelings and scary thoughts that often come with being depressed, the best thing you can do for yourself as an act of self care is to sit with these feelings and acknowledge them for what they are without judgement. 

Similarly, taking the time to reflect on your thoughts can be a great way to acknowledge the inner battle you might be struggling with. 

Developing an awareness of these thoughts and feelings can give you insight into your behaviour which might not be as adaptive as you’d might think. So developing an awareness of how your behaviour impacts your relationships and you as a person can be a good place to start. 

Self compassion

As you develop awareness, there is a possibility that it will drive you to more self-criticism and anger towards yourself. So take effort to practice self-compassion if not for others at least for yourself. 

UNderstand that you are not alone and the struggle of being affected by depression is not a simple thing. While your behaviour might impact others, accepting it with self-compassion can be a way to heal yourself. 

Dr. Neff for selfcompassion.com writes that self compassion can include positive self affirmations, or positive self talk, soothing yourself by giving yourself a hug or a pat on the back, and acknowledging that you are having a hard time- whatever feels natural to you.

Strike Balance. 

Now, because empathy fatigue can be caused because of a lack of work-life balance, striking a healthy balance between you-time and other-people time can go a long way.

Give yourself permission to find a balance between what feels like moments of rest and moments of active engagement with the world outside. Stress can be a major negative influence that aggravates symptoms of depression, so take active effort to maintain enough time to rest and care for yourself.

Activities of self care can include eating healthy, sleeping well, exercising, doing things you enjoy, giving yourself a warm bath after a day’s work etc. It can also be reaching out to other people and seeking help.

Connect with others 

Feeling connected with other people can be so healing to those experiencing empathy fatigue and depression.

Take time to go out of your way, push yourself to reach out to people you trust and care for you and talk about what you are struggling with. 

Choose to allow yourself to be loved and cared for by them and allow yourself to be vulnerable with those who want to help you. It might be scary but social connection and a sense of belonging and love is crucial to your mental health. 

Consider therapy 

Now, if you notice that you have tried all that you can from the list above or you find it hard to start and get going, consider talking to a professional who can guide you through this process. 

Therapists and counsellors, if you do not already see one for your depression, can be extremely helpful in developing insight and awareness about your patterns and also guide you in executing strategies for healing and coping. 

Join a support group

Another thing you can do for yourself is to join a support group of people struggling with depression so that you can experience emotional support first hand within these communities and over time learn how to manage your challenges by learning from each other. 

By joining a group that is open, empathetic, and growing towards healing, you and your experiences can be an excellent sense of support to someone else who is also in their early part of their journey. 

Conclusion

In this blog we have discussed what veterinarian depression is.

We have also briefly discussed what causes it, what are the signs of empathy fatigue, and how can a vet cope with depression. 

FAQ related to Veterinarian depression

Why are veterinarians so sad?

Veterinarians are sad because of the nature of their work. Depression in veterinarians is caused by empathy fatigue and stress- due the the nature of their work, the continued exposure to death, animal abuse, suffering, as well as due to the gruelling work life that they have.

Are veterinarians stressful?

Yes, veterinary medicine is one of the most stressful jobs. Vets have to deal with a variety of cases on a daily basis. Many of these cases involve treatment of abused animals, neglected animals, pets that have some chronic illness that may not be treatable and euthanasia. Vets euthanize at least one animal a day and this can be traumatising for the vets as well. 

References

Vets more likely to die by suicide. University of SouthHamton. Retrieved on 23rd April 2022. https://todaysveterinarynurse.com/personal-wellbeing/dealing-with-depression-in-veterinary-medicine/

Veterinarians Face Disproportionately High Suicide Rates, Study Says. Time. Retrieved on 23rd April 2022. https://time.com/5485552/veterinarians-suicide/

When Caring Hurts: Dealing with Depression in Veterinary Medicine. Retrieved on 23rd April 2022. https://todaysveterinarynurse.com/personal-wellbeing/dealing-with-depression-in-veterinary-medicine/

Schreiter’s, Pijnenborg GH, Aan Het Rot M. Empathy in adults with clinical or subclinical depressive symptoms. J Affect Disord. 2013 Aug 15;150(1):1-16. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2013.03.009. Epub 2013 May 11. PMID: 23668900.

S. Melillo, F. Caputo, C. Colletti, C. Mazza, M.P. Mazzaferro, C. Elce, E. Prinzivalli, S. Orlando, M. Casiello, EPA-0168 – Can depression affect empathy? European Psychiatry, Volume 29, Supplement 1, 2014, Page 1, ISSN 0924-9338, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0924-9338(14)77627-8.

Schwerdtfeger, K. A., Bahramsoltani, M., Spangenberg, L., Hallensleben, N., & Glaesmer, H. (2020). Depression, suicidal ideation and suicide risk in German veterinarians compared with the general German population. The Veterinary record, 186(15), e2.

https://doi.org/10.1136/vr.105430

Brscic, M., Contiero, B., Schianchi, A. et al. Challenging suicide, burnout, and depression among veterinary practitioners and students: text mining and topics modelling analysis of the scientific literature. BMC Vet Res 17, 294 (2021). 

https://doi.org/10.1186/s12917-021-03000-x