I had to take my son’s budgerigar to the bird doctor the other day… one-hour visit, antibiotics injection, $280 bill.
It’s cheaper to treat humans.
This got me thinking about a conversation I recently had with a friend about vets.
“Vets have one of the highest suicide rates around.”
“You mean War Veterans right?”
“No. Veterinarians. Animal doctors.”
I just couldn’t believe it. My friend was telling me about an article she read about how vets (not just here, but in the US and the UK and probably elsewhere) have a much higher likelihood of taking their own lives.
So I googled it and it turns out it’s true. It’s a known problem in the industry and has been for years.
In the UK, vets are four times more likely than the general population to take their own lives. That makes them one of the most at-risk professions going.
I just couldn’t get it out of my head…
So I did a bit more digging.
Turns out I had a totally romantic idea of what being a vet was all about. I thought it was all helping dolphins give birth and pulling thorns out of hamsters’ paws.
Nope. Vet life is actually pretty stressful. Most work long hours, the pays not great, and your clients can be very demanding. And there’s a lot of blood and guts and vomit and sh#t to deal with.
But that alone can’t explain it. There are many high-stress occupations that don’t have high-suicide rates – forex traders and airline pilots.
And there are many jobs that are unpleasant. Ask any nurse – or childcare worker!
(A friend of mine works in daycare. She said one day, two parents dropped their daughter off and said she’d swallowed 12 marbles the night before. They wanted her to check that they all come through.)
Some people wonder if it’s the high mortality rates associated with vet work. Compared to doctors say, vets are much more likely to lose patients. Many only see their patients when it’s time to ‘put them down.’
Some say their job is less animal health than it is ‘unwanted pet disposal’.
That’s got to be pretty brutal. And if you’re dealing with cases of animal cruelty or neglect on a regular basis, that’s got to test your faith in humanity.
But again, it’s not just vets that have to deal with that. If you’re working in palliative care, 100% of your patients are going to die sooner or later.
And if you’re working in child protection, you probably regularly come face to face with the horrible underbelly of human nature.
But these professions don’t have high suicide rates.
So what is it that sets vets apart?
One study reckons that if you spend too long doing vet work, you end up getting used to the decision and the act of ending something’s life.
You get desensitised to putting something ‘out of its misery’.
But humans are a lot like animals (especially if you’re an animal lover which I assume most vets are). So this crosses over into ending human life.
Vets and vet nurses are much more likely to favour voluntary euthanasia. One UK study showed almost 95% of vets are in favour. That compares with about 70% of the Australian adult population.
And if you think it’s ok for people in general, then putting your own self ‘out of your misery’ no longer seems like such a big deal.
And so vets are much more likely to take their own lives.
Is that true? This seems to be the best explanation available, but I find it really disturbing.
Every time I hear about someone taking their own life, I feel a sense of loss. I feel like we, as a society, have failed them. And the tragedy and sorrow weighs heavily on us.
And our stubbornly high suicide rates are a national disgrace.
Is it really just a cold and tragic calculus that lies beneath it all?
If a horse has a broken leg, it’s like we say that any joy and happiness their future life might offer does not offset the suffering they will have to endure. We put them ‘out of their misery’.
But does it make sense to apply that kind of cost/benefit analysis to any life, let alone human life?
It’s feels like such a shame when someone takes that view of their own life and thinks, there’s not enough prospect for joy to bother going on.
Life circumstances can change. Easily, radically. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.
But does it even make sense to place joy and suffering in opposition to each other? Both are needed for a rich and full life. One is not possible without the other.
And so I think vets are on the pointy end of a modern cultural fear of suffering. We run from suffering, see suffering as a problem.
My point is that a life full of suffering can still be a rich, powerful, meaningful and valuable. And suffering is a necessary part of life.
And a life full of suffering can still have a point. There can be still be a point to life.
I wonder if we, as a society, have lost sight of this. And vets, tragically, are the canary in the coal mine.
I guess I’m sharing this because I’ve also had my ups and downs. I’ve had my share of highs, but also my share of lows.
And I can be hard on myself. I set my expectations high. If a project doesn’t come off, it can really throw me.
But these set-backs – these hardships – are part of the journey. An important part of the journey.
The trick is not to fight them – not to see them as some sort of problem – but to allow them in.
Allow them in and realise that you are bigger than your suffering. You are bigger than it all.
And measure your life not by some entry in the joy/suffering ledger, but in meaning – in the contribution you can make to the lives of others.
Like your vet.
When did you last hug a vet?