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Veterinary Medicine’s Professional Imperative: Suicide Prevention

Jennifer WelserDVM, DACVO, Chief Medical and Quality Officer, Mars Veterinary Health

Dr. Jennifer Welser is Chief Medical and Quality Officer for Mars Veterinary Health. In her role, Dr. Welser leads the Medical Affairs function across the organization and works in close partnership with the chief medical officers of each practice to grow access to high-quality, innovative veterinary care and support Mars Petcare’s purpose: A BETTER WORLD FOR PETS.

Dr. Welser, who previously served as the Chief Medical Officer for BluePearl Veterinary Partners, has led a successful career as a veterinary specialty practitioner, practice owner and medical leader. She helped establish BluePearl’s clinician-driven culture and develop the medical leadership team and operations, as well as evolve and grow the practice’s residency and internship program.

Dr. Welser received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from Michigan State University, then became a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist after completing a rotating internship at Auburn University and an ophthalmology residency at Animal Eye Associates in Illinois. Before joining BluePearl, Dr. Welser practiced as an ophthalmologist at Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston and owned a successful veterinary practice in California.


Veterinary Medicine’s Professional Imperative: Suicide Prevention

Throughout their careers, veterinary professionals commit to helping their patients become healthier and happier, but we all too often forget to focus that same time and attention on our own wellbeing. In honor of National Suicide Prevention Month in September and World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10, I ask my veterinary colleagues to shine a light on a public health issue that disproportionately impacts our field – and take actions to improve it.

No person or profession is immune to suicidal ideation, from international athletes and pop stars to veterinarians and paraprofessionals. While all healthcare workers are at risk of mental health challenges and emotional distress, suicide is an issue that is especially pressing in veterinary medicine. With rates of suicide among veterinarians higher than the general population, this trend – which, according to one CDC study, has persisted for more than three decades  – reinforces the need for our profession to place a greater emphasis on mental health awareness and wellbeing and make tools and resources available to support each other.

Understanding the causes of mental health challenges in our field

The root cause of mental health challenges in the veterinary profession is often the very thing that made us choose these passion-filled careers in the first place: our commitment to providing high-quality, compassionate care for the animals we love. These daily pressures, which we often put on ourselves, can be compounded with other factors, such as high rates of student debt, abusive behavior from clients, moral distress and most recently, a pandemic, which has increased isolation and disrupted routines for many.

Veterinary professionals’ exposure to euthanasia also introduces a unique factor. Our profession excels at addressing quality-of-life and end-of-life care for our patients. As pet lovers, we care deeply for pets, and euthanasia is difficult every time. We not only feel our own emotions over the loss of the pet that was in our care, but we also bear witness to the sadness experienced by that pet’s family. While many of us find comfort in knowing we humanely ended a pet’s suffering, we can also become desensitized to this process because of our professional interaction with euthanasia. For some veterinary professionals struggling with suicidal thoughts, the mental step to apply the same type of logic to themselves can become much smaller than for those outside our profession.

These unique risk factors reinforce why this is an issue we must address on an industry-wide level, in addition to an interpersonal level.

Caring for ourselves, and the future of our profession

The truth is, we cannot provide the care we want to – the care our patients deserve – without first caring for ourselves and each other. Our professional expectations need to evolve to include prioritizing individual wellness. Every day, we must choose to prioritize our own health and wellbeing, and to support others by making sure they have the resources they need to take care of their bodies and their minds.

We must also be more transparent with our teams – and with ourselves – to destigmatize mental health and open the door for others. Leaders can model this behavior, showing colleagues it is okay to let someone know you are struggling and to ask for help. And we also have a responsibility to support each other’s mental health. Regular team meetings and one-on-one conversations not only provide colleagues with an outlet to express their feelings, but also an opportunity for us to get to know our peers and recognize changes in mood or behavior that may signal a need for help.

In today’s landscape, intentional, direct communication is critical to get a true sense for someone’s state of mind. Masks worn to protect against COVID-19 can make it hard to read a person’s facial expressions and pick up on subtle cues. But creating moments of connection with colleagues can help as we all continue to navigate today’s more distanced world.

I want to emphasize that the goal is not to “solve” the issue for someone who may have symptoms of suicidal ideation. Though we are caregivers and fixers by nature, we are not mental health professionals. We’re not equipped to address these types of situations alone, but we can encourage people to speak to those who are and make effective resources readily available.

We’ve made progress, but there’s still much to be done

Over the last several years, there has been greater awareness, conversation and action in our profession. I’ve been encouraged to hear more open and honest dialog about mental health, but the discussions are still too few and far between, and the stigma within our profession remains.

Mental health and wellbeing – and combatting suicide – are top-of-mind for all of us at Mars Veterinary Health. In addition to creating a health and wellbeing resource hub for our more than 65,000 global Associates, we created a first-of-its-kind suicide awareness and prevention training for veterinary professionals. “ASK – Assess, Support, Know” is an online suite of tools intended to help veterinary professionals understand and recognize signs of emotional distress in others, so they can direct them to the appropriate resources. Health and wellbeing content, including the “ASK” training, are available for free to veterinary professionals around the globe via MVH4You.com.

I also encourage you to leverage the following resources as needed:

Together, we can help reduce veterinary suicide

I can’t think of a better way to honor National Suicide Prevention Month than by connecting with each other and establishing new protocols for checking in with your colleagues – this month and every day moving forward.

We’ve chosen this field because of our passion for pets and the people who love them. Now’s the time to extend this same compassion to our colleagues, and to ourselves. It’s the right thing to do for our profession, for each other, and for our loved ones.