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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Following Suicides, North Texas Veterinary Community Works To Address Mental Health

Jaromir Chalabala

Studies have shown a high rate of suicide in the veterinary community. One of every six veterinary school grads in a 2014 CDC survey said they’d considered taking their own life.

The WNYC podcast series Death, Sex & Money had been looking into this when producers learned a veterinarian and two veterinary technicians in Dallas died by suicide in separate incidents within weeks of each other. The podcast episode, which is out now, explores the suicides and how the veterinary community is trying to address workers’ concerns and prevent other suicides.

Anna Sale is host and managing editor of Death, Sex & Money. Veterinarians and vet techs face lots of stress, she says. The deaths in Dallas “did spur a conversation about how workers in the veterinary field can talk more directly about the mental health stresses that they face,” she says.

Interview Highlights

On the stresses veterinarians face:

We went to a 24-hour emergency hospital, so there are pets to deal with at every hour, and one thing we heard from a veterinary social worker is it creates this environment where if you’re a vet tech who has to administer euthanasia, you’ve got to go to the next pet patient — not a lot of time to reflect and process on what you’re doing. Another thing the social worker said to us, if you think about it veterinarians are not just health care providers, they’re also funeral directors. It’s not just treating these patients. It’s also then following them through the end-of-life process and into death and dealing with that up close, so that adds its own stresses.

On the expectation of clients:

As a pet owner you have to decide: are you going to spend the money to help your pet or are you going to say, ‘I can’t afford that’? That can cause resentment, that can cause anger, and staff at veterinarian hospitals are often on the front line for that.

On how the three deaths spurred action:

It did spur a conversation about how workers in the veterinary field can talk more directly about the mental health stresses that they face and also how to talk directly about it and not ignore it because of stigma. And after this [podcast] episode came out, we’ve heard from some of the people in it that they’re hopeful it creates an awareness among pet owners who bring their animals to these clinics and hospitals about what the staff is going through and what their lives are like. It’s kind of hidden from the public. You don’t think about what the realities are.

What happened in Dallas last year was very sad and it shook the veterinary community into saying, ‘What can we do to have more honest and direct conversations about the mental health of the people that we work with?’ and to create more awareness about what happens in veterinary medicine.

On how there wasn’t support for the ‘tight-knit’ vet community until now:

These are very busy people who are trying to do the best they can to run businesses, to take care of animals and to keep things going. So figuring out how to pause and do mental health check-ins and how to support each other when you’re just trying to do the work of providing veterinary medicine. It’s not the top priority. This did shift that into saying, ‘We’ve got to figure out ways to better integrate and to train ourselves to support each other while we’re doing this work.’

I think there is a growing acknowledgement that the particular combination of factors in veterinary medicine today are quite stressful. And so I think veterinary medicine as a whole, not just in Dallas, is trying to figure out ways to train and better support people who work in this field.

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Interview responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.