It was 1973. I was holding horses for Doc Ellis, the veterinarian who cared for the animals at the Riding Centre, a small stable in the village of Yellow Springs, Ohio. Yellow Springs is home to Antioch College, where I attended undergraduate school. It’s a remarkable town, populated by an eclectic mix of a few thousand academics, artists, original thinkers, and down-to-earth Midwesterners. It was my third year in college. I’ve told this story a million times since then: how this one horse, Brandy, was acting up. How when Dr. Ellis tried to vaccinate her, she bolted, knocking me over. How I landed in a pile of snow and manure in the breezeway, looked out at Brandy galloping off, and thought “This is fun. I’m going to do this.”
Forty-five years later, I am a veteran veterinarian. I no longer work with horses, but I do stay in touch with folks from Yellow Springs, so in April this year, I was stunned to read an article from an Ohio newspaper, the Xenia Daily Gazette, posted on Facebook: “A Beloved Veterinarian Remembered.” The column reported the unexpected death in Yellow Springs of Dr. Charles Scott Hosket at the age of 65. Just two years older than me. I didn’t know Dr. Hosket, but I knew exactly where his practice was. I’d driven by that house a thousand times. I knew the back roads he traveled, the farms he attended, the village he called home.
Just one week before Dr. Hosket’s death, a new study was released at the 2018 Veterinary Well-Being Summit by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Looking at mortality rates for veterinarians from 1979 to 2014, researchers found suicide rates for male veterinarians in the United States were twice that of the general population. For female veterinarians the statistics were even more sobering, with a suicide rate 3.5 times that of the general population. The data was collected from a variety of sources, but the bottom line was staggering. Of all the veterinarians that died during the 35-year period studied, 3 percent did so by their own hands. That’s three out of every 100 deaths. The median age was 42 years for women, and 57 for men. This situation is not limited to the U.S. Studies from the U.K., Australia, and Norway also show suicide rates for veterinarians up to four times the average.
In recent years, thanks to social media, these tragic losses are more widely shared, and the problem is finally being talked about openly among veterinarians. There are now continuing education seminars on burnout and stress management. There are webinars for veterinarians addressing suicide prevention, for themselves and their associates. There are private groups online where veterinarians discuss depression, anxiety, and the pressures of practice. Yet in public, the glorification of that ideal image of the selfless veterinarian persists. Take the words of the well-meaning journalist from the Xenia Daily Gazette, who opened the tribute to this beloved doctor like this: “Dr. Hosket saw it all. He was there for each delivery, there for every loss, there for emergency stitches or diagnosis or surgery.” The article goes on to share story after story. A sick dog seen on emergency after hours one Saturday. Delivering calves or piglets in the middle of the night. Pro bono work with rescues and strays. It lauded how he worked long, hard hours, often reducing prices to help those in need. “He was just always there,” one person concluded.
Admirable qualities, indeed … but as I read this article, I cried. I didn’t know Dr. Hosket. I don’t know exactly why he chose to end his life. I do, however, know the toll of trying to live up to this “ideal” takes on people in my profession. Factors that contribute to the high suicide rate among U.S. veterinarians, according to the CDC, include demands of practice such as long work hours and work overload, practice management responsibilities, client expectations and complaints, knowledge of euthanasia procedures, access to controlled substances such as euthanasia solution, training to view euthanasia as a normal and acceptable method to relieve suffering, ever-increasing educational debt-to-income ratio, and poor work-life balance.
There is also an element of “self-selection” for high-risk individuals, as those who choose to become veterinarians tend to be high-achieving perfectionists. This can create enormous internal pressure when working at a job that requires excellent technical and diagnostic skills, and leaves little room for mistakes. Socially, veterinarians may be less comfortable with people than with animals, which can lead to isolation. And, yes, most do truly love animals, but a compassionate nature may predispose to emotional burnout when facing a daily parade of suffering, illness, and death. Even many human physicians do not experience nearly as much hands-on death as veterinarians do. Our patients have shorter lives, and ones that are sometimes cut short by finances as much as by nature. I couldn’t help but wonder how the stresses of being the small town country veterinarian had weighed on Dr. Hosket.
Of course there are many wonderful, rewarding things about practicing veterinary medicine, and it is not the only profession fraught with mental health struggles. Collecting accurate data comparing suicide rates by occupation is difficult, but other high-risk groups include a wide range of jobs such as farmers, fishermen, doctors, dentists, and police officers, to name just a few. No line of work is immune. Dr. Hosket’s death reminded me that we never really know what pain other folks are facing.
In many ways, the Vineyard is much like Yellow Springs, and living here brings unique challenges. We are all vulnerable to the stresses of life. Waitresses, bus drivers, steamship workers, dentists, plumbers, carpenters, doctors, clerks, veterinarians. All of us. As we head into the busy summer season, may we strive to appreciate one another, to take care of ourselves and of each other, being mindful that we are all human and deserving of compassion.