DIGGING DEEPER: Help for veterinarians facing higher suicide risk

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MADISON (WKOW) —  Doctors and caregivers face pressures and stresses every day they go to work, even those caring for our pets.

A recent study from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found female veterinarians are 2.4 times as likely to commit suicide as the general population. That rate is 1.6 for men.

It’s a concern leaders in the profession here in Wisconsin are taking seriously.

“It’s come to the front burner, so we can be aware and start to address it and and not hide it or be ashamed of it,” said Kim Pokorny, director of the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association.

The association has lost several members to suicide in recent years. Pokorny’s office has taken calls from concerned vets who don’t have a lot of resources.

“A lot of times just having somebody to listen. And to have that empathy and compassion is what they’re looking for,” she said.

Career full of stressors

The life of a veterinarian or vet tech is full of pressures, difficult decisions and tough losses. It can be even harder for veterinary students, who are also balancing coursework with clinic care and their personal lives, along with massive student loan debt.

“Sometimes the feeling of helplessness, where you want to do everything that you can, but it still will turn out in a way that you wish it wouldn’t,” said Marlyse Wehber, a student at UW-Madison’s School of Veterinary Medicine.

Burnout is a risk, so students like Wehber have learned they need to take steps to put their mental health first.

“It’s something that’s definitely alarming and a lot of us want to turn away from, but I think it’s something we have to turn towards and figure out how we can kind of tackle this,” she told 27 News.

Support becomes part of education

The vet school added support services for students about a decade ago. Specialized counselors work right at the vet school on Linden Drive, bringing mental health services to students as they go through their day.

“We are here to hopefully help reduce the stigma for mental health for students, so that they can start to see that accessing mental health services during school and hopefully thereafter isn’t anything to be concerned about. We just want to normalize that process that when you’re struggling, you go get help,” said Shelly Wissink, a personal and wellness support services counselor.

Wissink says the school offers seminars on burnout, coping with stress and mindfulness practices.

Plus, officials have recently added a meditation room and a quiet study area to support students’ mental health on site.

“Trying to get them to use those stress coping skills as they graduate and hopefully take those into the field with them, so that they’re better able to cope once they’re out of school,” Wissink said.

Statewide focus on mental health

Meanwhile, the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association is working to help catch the signs of mental health issues earlier in veterinarians across the state.

The group will soon host Mental Health First Aid trainings in Wisconsin, to help vets and vet techs recognize when a colleague needs help.

“[You learn] how to recognize and to confront the issue. Like if you feel somebody is suicidal, you need to ask them, are you suicidal?” said Pokorny. “That rural areas seem to have higher suicide rates because of less resources available for them, which is certainly true in Wisconsin.”

The association is also working with state officials as they finalize details for a new program to help struggling veterinarians.

The Veterinary Examining Board with the Department of Agriculture Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) is hiring a vendor to manage the program. It’s expected to bring services like a 24/7 helpline, mental health resources and help for substance abuse.

Looking to the future

Just knowing these services are available provide peace of mind, helping students like Marlyse become more aware of their mental health than ever.

She’s been picking up wellness habits to stay on the right track and continue doing what she loves most.

“Taking my dog on walks, being outside in nature. It’s the little things like that where I can feel like, okay, I can go back to work, and okay, I remember why I do this. And just feel the best that I can,” she said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Jennifer Kliese

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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