An empathetic ear—and more—for veterinary professionals struggling with depression

Between 1979 and 2015, 398 veterinarians died by their own hands.

That’s the troubling conclusion of a study published last year in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) that examined the death records of 11,620 veterinarians.

The findings seemed to confirm the results of a landmark 2020 study of the prevalence of mental illness and levels of wellbeing in the veterinary profession conducted by the AVMA and Merck Animal Health. Taken together, the studies confirmed what many in the profession already suspected: a lot of veterinarians—and veterinary support staff—were in serious emotional trouble.

And while this appeared to be a crisis of major proportions, many people in the profession weren’t having “The Conversation,” at least not openly. Thankfully, that’s changing.

Because sometimes, talking about it can help. Or, in this case, posting about it.

On October 1, 2014, Nicole McArthur, DVM, frustrated and still in shock over the suicide of veterinary rock star Sophia Yin earlier that year, helped jumpstart the conversation by launching a Facebook page called Not One More Vet (NOMV). In four years, as the profession has grown more open to talking about the mental health problems percolating in its ranks, NOMV has grown from a group of 20 people into the largest veterinary support group in the world, with more than 28,000 members worldwide providing peer-to-peer mental health support and suicide awareness.

After shepherding her brainchild through five years of growing pains, McArthur stepped back from her duties last February, citing personal issues that needed attending to—which is kind of the whole idea behind Not One More Vet: recognizing that self-care takes precedence.

That left the group, now a tax-exempt nonprofit, in the capable hands of her successor, NOMV Board President Carrie Jurney, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology), who’s been at NOMV’s helm through a difficult year.

“The pandemic has made things harder for everyone,” Jurney told NEWStat. “Not just veterinarians.”

According to Jurney, NOMV’s internal surveys show that 67% of veterinarians are doing worse mentally this year than last, and 47% of hospital support staff report the same. “Things like curbside slow everything down. And we have a pandemic that’s taking our workers off the floor.”

Jurney mentions a  good friend who owns a general practice hospital near hers in Redwood City, California. The friend just caught COVID and her entire staff had to quarantine. “She closed her clinic for two weeks, and all of the other local clinics were having to absorb her critical cases. So, things are hard right now for everyone.” Jurney knows firsthand just how hard: she herself caught COVID in February—from someone at her hospital—and had to temporarily close her single-doctor practice.

One of the fifty volunteers who monitor the NOMV Facebook pages—all are trained in crisis intervention—Jurney hears similar stories every day from group members who depend on the site as a safe place to vent, confess their fears, and support their colleagues. “We try to be that supportive, calm voice when people come to us.”

The number of people accessing the site has grown steadily as the pandemic has dragged on.

Jurney said the first thing they try to tell new members is that it’s OK not to be OK right now. “Things are hard right now,” she says, “and it’s perfectly normal to feel like you’re struggling when stuff is hard.”

When we’re struggling, Jurney adds, it’s time to double down on some of the basics of self-care: “It’s the first thing we all let go. When we’re busy, we stop working out, stop eating healthy. We stop trying to get sleep because we’ve got to see one more case.” In a veterinary hospital, there’s always one more thing we need to get done. “That’s fine for a couple of weeks,” Jurney said. “But we’re 10 months into this now, and it shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.”  

At this point, Jurney says, we all have to find balance in our lives as well as a way to maintain it. “I’m really encouraging everyone to find an hour in the day to take care of themselves. And I mean the really boring stuff. The stuff that no grown adult wants to be told, like, ‘Hey, you need to drink water and exercise.’”  

In addition to providing a safe space for veterinary professionals, NOMV has introduced special programs, such as financial grants for struggling veterinary team members and education programs that teach coping skills.

NOMV has also partnered with BetterHelp, an online counseling platform that matches people with a licensed mental health professional, to offer one month of free counseling. Jurney says you don’t have to be a NOMV member to take advantage of it, but you do need to access it through BetterHelp’s NOMV portal.

Jurney says that’s been a really important partnership. “Therapists are just as overrun as veterinarians right now, so that’s been a great stopgap to get people some help while they wait for other resources to free up. The first month’s on us, because I think that kind of taking-the-plunge moment is hard for people. We wanted to make it a little bit easier, and it’s been helpful for a lot of veterinary professionals who are struggling financially.”

And if you just need someone to talk to who gets what you’re going through, check out Not One More Vet. You just might find yourself talking to Jurney.