Not One More Vet: The documentary

(Maria Barnas, left, interviews Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB, DACAW, MS, a professor of clinical animal behavior at the UC-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, in a scene from Barnas' documentary Not One More Vet. Photo courtesy of Maria Barnas)

“I’m a crier,” says documentary filmmaker Maria Barnas, who freely admits she doesn’t hide her feelings well. “I think I’ve cried with every person I’ve interviewed.” 

Barnas is talking about Not One More Vet, her documentary in-the-making about the horrific rate of suicide in the veterinary profession. Named after the 501(c)(3) veterinary suicide awareness nonprofit Not One More Vet (NOMV), the documentary currently consists mostly of a 5:27 trailer and a GoFundMe page with a goal of $150,000. 

The $150,000 is Barnas’ budget for all filming costs and post-production. Right now, the GoFundMe page has raised just $20,000. 

But that goal is misleading. 

Barnas has already sunk $20,000 into the project, which paid for the trailer. Ten-thousand dollars of it came in the form of a research grant from Middle Tennessee State University, where Barnas is an associate professor of video and film production in the department of Media Arts.  

The other $10,000 came out of Barnas’ own pocket. That’s how much she believes in the project. 

Barnas began spending a lot of time at her local veterinary hospital in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, last spring when she had a number of cats die on her of old age. “I just started spending so much time with my vet.” 

Over the many hours she spent at the clinic, Barnas became close with staff, who talked freely about the problem of compassion fatigue and suicide in the profession. She was shocked and upset by what she heard. She’d become very close with the practice manager. “I told her, ‘Hey, this needs to be a documentary, because I’m just learning about this and, if I don't know about this, then other people don’t know.'” 

Barnas committed herself to getting the word out. Her veterinarian put her in touch with Elisabeth Strand, PhD, LCSW, founding director of  Veterinary Social Work  and a clinical associate professor at the University of Tennessee Colleges of Social Work and Veterinary Medicine. Strand, an expert on compassion fatigue, told her about Not One More Vet and put her in touch with NOMV Board President Carrie Jurney, DVM, DACVIM (Neurology).  

The documentary began to take shape from there: A film about shocking and devastating rise in suicide rates among veterinarians today.   

From the film’s GoFundMe page:  

This documentary will shed light on the issue by telling a story around several dramatic arcs: the mental health researchers and professionals aiming to help stop this crisis, the Not One More Vet organization, the family of a veterinarian who took their own life, a veterinarian who considered suicide, veterinary students who struggle with the stresses of graduation and placement specialization, and veterinarians and vet techs who are currently working in the field. This documentary hopes to inform and educate the public about the devastating rise in suicide rates among veterinarians today and be a call to action to help prevent further loss of life in this profession. 

Over the next few weeks, Barnas will spend a good portion of that second $20,000 filming more interviews. “We're interviewing more vet techs. We're trying to get their perspectives added in.” In coming months, she plans to interview staff at Texas A&M, UC-Davis, and a couple of celebrity vets like Marty Becker and Andy Roark, both of whom she just nailed down: “We're really excited about this!” She says their celebrity status will attract more interest and hopefully more investors. 

For the moment, she says, the documentary is moving forward in fits and starts: “What we’re doing is, we raise a chunk of money; we go shoot. We raise another chunk of money; we go shoot.”  

Barnas says that at some point they’ll stop shooting, “and then we'll be in post-production, and that will be its own beast.” But right now, she doesn’t know when that will be: “Sometimes you don’t know the shape something’s going to take until you’re in the middle of it, and that’s definitely true with documentaries.”  

She says they’ve been reaching out to big companies to ask for funding, but until they get it, it’s: “raise a chunk; go shoot.”   

Barnas concedes that this is a big project for her. She has been in the film business for a long time, but her previous documentaries have been small and not about what she calls “big topics,” which she clearly feels this is. “They’ve been fun,” she says by way of comparison.  

“[Not One More Vet”] started out as a short film,” she says. “Now we know it could be an hour long. But because this is so important and because [everyone involved] is so passionate about it, we're trying to not make a decision on exactly what it is until we get through at least these next two big chunks of filming.”  

“My big, pie-in-the-sky dream is that, if this were funded well enough, and it was good enough, we can get this on something like Netflix and everyone would see it,” Barnas laughs. “But that’s [the dream]. I’ll take making something that’s really quality-driven, that's good, that gets into big [film] festivals, that gets seen.”  

Eventually she’d like Not One More Vet to be shown in veterinary schools and even in practices, so owners and managers can watch it with their staff and use it to get a difficult conversation going.  

“This is a tool to be used,” Barnas says, adding that that’s one of the strengths of a documentary: “It’s the type of film that's supposed to show things as they really are . . . something that opens our eyes and shows us things that are really happening in the world that we wouldn't necessarily know [otherwise]. That this is really happening, and these are real people’s feelings and lives.”   

That brings us back to Barnas’ inability to hide her feelings. 

Barnas does the on-camera interviews, and says they aren’t easy for her. The toughest interview so far was with the family of a veterinarian who took his own life in July 2020: “I knew it was going to be emotional, but nothing prepares you for that. We put in the trailer what [his mother] said about talking to him the weekend before he took his life and it is so impactful, it sat with me for weeks because it really humanized the statistics for me, and it will for everyone else who sees the film, too.” 

But for Barnas, the biggest reveal in her research was that everyone in the profession is being impacted, not just the veterinarians and their families.  

“I think in the media they take the word veterinarian and they say, ‘this veterinarian killed themselves,’  and  they  sensationalize  that. I had no idea that it was on a level that it is,” Barnas says. Her eyes were opened by her veterinarian’s staff: “I didn't know it was affecting the vet techs;  I didn't know it was affecting the receptionist.”  

Elizabeth Strand, who appears in the trailer, told NEWStat she thinks the documentary will help raise awareness of a problem not enough people know about: “It’s good for everyone to be aware that veterinarians face distress just like we all do.” Her advice? “If we love our pets, it’s good for us to love our pets’ doctors too. As best as we can, even when we are stressed or worried about our pets, be nice to our veterinarians because they suffer for our pets and for us too.”  

NOMV Board President Jurney is thrilled that Barnas has taken this project on, and told NEWStat that Not One More Vet hasn’t contributed anything financial to the project because they don’t have the funds. “This is being financed purely through Marie. She approached us and wanted to name it after our organization. She’s taken on the project entirely on her own. We’re very excited about it.”  

Nevertheless, Barnas knows she has to be practical and that, at some point, she’ll have to stop filming: “I would like to get a rough-cut together in about six months and then see what else we might need, but we're sort of trying to edit as we go, and so I would like to put something out by summer.”  

Barnas says she jokes that if she can’t raise enough money to finish the film, she’ll take out a second mortgage, but adds, “I'm kind of serious because I owe it to [everyone] who’s a part of this. For me, this is about opening people’s eyes and creating positive change, about trying to get some perspective on what [veterinary professionals] go through and how we treat each other.” 

And how we can learn to treat each other better.  

“I want to help create that positive change,” Barnas said. “I want us all to do better.”