“This doesn’t have to be our story”: Nonprofit aims to prevent suicide in the veterinary profession

Within a week in March 2021, just as the pandemic was hitting the one-year mark, three veterinarians and one veterinary technician took their own lives in the US.

“They just absolutely broke my heart,” said Blair McConnel, VMD, MBA. The suicides inspired McConnel and her friend Elizabeth Chosa, DVM, to found the Veterinary Hope Foundation (VHF) that same month.

VHF’s mission is to provide early suicide prevention and education, primarily through interactive support groups for veterinarians, each led by mental health professionals. They will also offer a veterinary-specific curriculum that will focus on issues faced by practicing veterinarians, such as communicating with distraught clients, balancing work and family, processing grief, and building emotional stamina.

The alarming rate of suicide among veterinarians—especially female veterinarians, who make up the majority of veterinarians in the US—and veterinary technicians, long considered a taboo subject, is now top of mind in the profession, thanks in part to a 2019 study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which showed that female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the general population.

It’s a tragic trend that stretches back at least three decades.

Chosa knows firsthand. She told NEWStat that of the 87 people in her 2005 veterinary school graduating class, 3 had taken their own lives within a decade of leaving school. News of the first 2 rocked her. News that a third classmate had taken their life in 2016 overwhelmed her. “It was too much. Even one was too much.”

Her shock led her to write a Facebook post about the problem of veterinary suicide that she deleted within two minutes of posting. “It was too personal,” she said. “It was too much to put out there.”

But people had already seen it. Almost immediately, friends and colleagues were inundating her with messages, saying how much it resonated with them. They told her that it was a serious issue no one was talking about, and begged her to repost it.

She did, and it touched a nerve: the post eventually received more than 2,000 shares.

When she saw the response, Chosa said she thought to herself, “Gosh, I need to do something on a broader scale.” Then she learned about Not One More Vet (NOMV), of which her veterinary school classmate, Carrie Jurney, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology), serves as board president.

Impressed with the work NOMV was doing, Chosa let the idea drop. Until this past March, when McConnel got in touch after the last round of suicides and said, “What can we do?”

Chosa asked a question in return: “What can we do to try to prevent these crises from happening instead of waiting until people are in crisis?” In that moment, the two colleagues saw a way to augment the important work NOMV was doing by addressing the problem with a different approach.

McConnel and Chosa envisioned the VHF as a nonprofit that could offer online support groups across the country to the veterinary community, with “8 to 10 people per group, with a qualified mental health counselor to lead them, and an established curriculum devoted to suicide awareness and education,” said Chosa.

“It’s a very lonely profession in some ways,” McConnel said. “Our goal is to build a community where veterinarians can talk about the challenges we’re all dealing with every day.” Issues such as disgruntled clients, crushing student debt, and work-life balance. “Our support groups would address these issues head on.”

Chosa said demographics will play a big role in the makeup of the groups, with the goal of creating a safe place where people can talk freely with those who share and understand their daily struggles.

Initial funding for VHF will come from individual donors. Industry partners are also being brought in to sponsor programming at various tiers, and VHF hopes to roll out their first groups this fall.

McConnel said that, depending on funding, VHF hopes to support 1,000 veterinarians with its programming during its first year: “There are only about 65,000 clinical veterinarians in the country, so if we can reach a couple thousand per year, it can make a difference.”

While they’re busy seeking funding, VHF has launched a social media campaign called Share Vet Love to help increase awareness of the issue and encourage people to create and share content featuring animals expressing gratitude for the veterinarians who care for them through multiple channels using the hashtag #sharevetlove.

The statistics on veterinary suicide tell a grim story.

But McConnel said that if veterinarians are provided with a community and expert therapeutic guidance on how to frame things, think about things, and work through things, that can change: “This doesn’t have to be our story.”

Photo credit: © Hector Perluz / iStock / Getty Images via Getty Images Plus

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