Kiwi Post: A fragile privilege

I’ve been privileged to have been a vet for over 30 years. It was a vaguely random choice at the time- I can’t pretend it was born out of a huge passion, or an intellectual dissection of its promise, or even a great desire for service. 

Instead, for a slightly above average student in a rural-ish community in the West of Scotland, it seemed a better option at University than medicine, which was the first place students were normally pushed towards. And being congenitally grumpy towards people, who seemed to be the main focus of medicine, animals felt like a better option.  

Having squeezed in, I found myself amongst people who had dreamed of being a vet since they were two or three. Then there were 5 years of fairly fruitless studying, struggling to get over the 30 per cent threshold in term exams to continue, interspersed with much more inspiring social events, before finally scraping past the finishing post. 

We lost our first classmate within two weeks, the result of a horrible car accident on her first solo day in her first job. It brought home the fragility of what we had all strived variously to achieve. But it also crystalised the privilege we had to be allowed to continue the journey. 

And it’s been an inspiring journey. While most people dream of getting a farm tour or stepping foot on a high country station, we have the unique privilege of being invited onto people’s farms and stations. While others adore cats and dogs and love to be with them, we get paid to spend all day with them and improve their lives. 

For those of us lucky enough to work in rural communities, we have the added bonus of becoming a part of these unique social structures. Our lives are intertwined with our communities. We live, love, work, play with the people who are our friends, colleagues, clients, neighbours. We can’t separate work from play. 

We’ve reached that state of mastery described by the words of François-René de Chateaubriand 200 years ago, ‘A master in the art of living draws no sharp distinction between his work and his play; his labour and his leisure; his mind and his body; his education and his recreation. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence through whatever he is doing, and leaves others to determine whether he is working or playing. To himself, he always appears to be doing both.’

And yet, for a sector inspired by the rich lives of James Herriot and others of his ilk, it doesn’t always feel that way. The prevalence of mental illness amongst veterinarians is repeatedly reported as being higher than the general population. We know that we have a suicide rate that is four times that of non- vet cohorts. A recent Norwegian study found that over a quarter of 2596 veterinarians surveyed had felt that life was ‘not worth living’ within the past year. Females had twice the rate of ‘serious suicidal’ thoughts than males. 

It’s hard to square this bleak and tragic picture with the colourful and rich experience so many of us have as veterinarians. What has happened to the profession that I joined 35 years ago, brimming with expectations of an idyllic Herriot-esque life? How have we fallen so far, and failed so many? What legacy are we leaving our graduates and younger vets? 

We lost a nearby veterinary colleague and friend to suicide last month. He was the second in as many months in New Zealand. The crisis that stalks our profession landed on our shoulders with a cold, unexpected suddenness. Worlds were thrown into disarray. The talons of grief reached far and wide into a close, small community, and scraped raw scars down its back. In a profession that responds well to others’ crises, we seem unable to prevent or alter our own. And there’s a sense that this is getting worse. 

But this may not be a new problem. James Herriot himself suffered from significant depression. Writing his amazing books was his way of managing that depression and staying on top of his job, keeping things together. His colleagues recognised the value of this for him and encouraged and supported him in this. And yet his boss, portrayed as Siegfried in his books, committed suicide in his later years. Our crisis doesn’t seem that new. 

I’ll miss a great guy at the pool; at conferences and vet functions. I have no idea what we have to do to be better, but we have to find a way. We have to carve a better profession. And those of us who have better experienced the fragile privilege that is our profession should be the ones to start. For the sakes of our colleagues, partners, families, clients, animals, kids. Amongst all the challenges our profession faces, there is nothing more important. Please, please: not one more vet. 

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