Hunter veterinarians suffer in silence over burnout and abuse

HIGH STRESS: A Newcastle vet who wished not to identify herself says she is the victim of regular abuse from pet owners. Picture: Marina Neil

HIGH STRESS: A Newcastle vet who wished not to identify herself says she is the victim of regular abuse from pet owners. Picture: Marina Neil

Verbal abuse, threats and aggressive behaviour from pet owners is pushing Hunter veterinarians to breaking point.

This vet, pictured, says she puts up with verbal abuse every time she goes to work at a Hunter veterinary clinic to help sick animals.

She’s had owners threaten to find out where she lives, she’s been told to “watch out when you leave work” and she’s been trolled on social media.

Concerned for her own safety, she has asked to remain anonymous - and she's not alone.

The frequent personal attacks are leaving veterinarians feeling overwhelmed, anxious and depressed.

Industry statistics show vets experience higher rates of stress, depression and work-related burnout. 

This vet has been in the industry for four years and says she has already worked with two vets who have taken their own life.

She has urged pet owners to think twice before they lash out.

“That’s too many lives lost, it’s excessive,” she said. “Does the public realise that constant abuse is taking a very serious toll on vets? Some days you handle it well and other times you sit and have a massive cry.”

Our vet believes hers is not a respected profession anymore, and that it comes down to money for many people. She has found that people are much more aggressive when they can’t afford treatment for their pet.

“You can’t go to the grocery story and abuse the checkout chick and say ‘I’ve got no money until tomorrow but I’m really hungry now’, so why is it so acceptable to do it in the veterinary profession?  

This vet puts up with the abuse so she can help sick animals.

“The people who are attracted to being a vet are very compassionate and sensitive, so they take a lot of the things to heart,” she explained. “And the negativity that you receive can be overwhelming.

“I’ve had situations where I won’t close the consult door and i’ll make sure I’m near the door because I am feeling physically threatened in a situation.

“Verbal abuse happens on a daily basis - serious name-calling like f’s and c’s, and being yelled out. The verbal abuse is what really gets to me.”

The cost of veterinary care and the triage system, which is similar to a hospital emergency department, is usually what leads to the abuse.

“People expect that because you love animals you should work for free, or if they’ve got no money you should be doing the operation for free,” she says.

“It’s impossible to do that, we’ve got a state-of-the-art fully staffed hospital to help diagnose and treat animals in the middle of the night and that costs money.

"People equate the expense to human medicine. The problem is human medicine is 10 times more expensive, it's just that we never see those bills because Medicare covers it.”

Vets who work in emergency centres often have 13 to 15 hours shifts, and sometimes it’s so busy they work many hours without a break.

Euthanising animals is one of the worst parts of the job. This vet had to euthanise eight animals during her first shift at an emergency centre on Christmas Day.

"We can have periods of time when we call ourselves Dr Death,” she says. “People don’t think about all of those pressures. It really is an emotional rollercoaster.”

Dr Sue Beetson is vice president of the Australian Veterinary Associations and say the welfare of vets is paramount and that there are a number of programs in place to support vets.

“The AVA provides a 24/7 telephone counselling service for members,” she said.

“We have a national mentoring program which connects a new graduate with an experienced veterinarian who can provide one-on-one advice. We also support a mental health first aid course which is a two-day intensive training program for staff. It is is designed to help increase awareness and understanding of mental health problems, suicide and prevention strategies. 

“The AVA has also been running a national mental health and suicide program for several years in each state.

“Being a veterinarian can be a rewarding career, but for a small proportion there are stresses that can take its toll such as long working hours and high workloads.

“Providing ongoing support to veterinarians is crucial, which is why the AVA is so proactive in this area.”

Need support?

If you feel you would like to to speak to someone, you can call:

· LifeLine: 13 11 14 

· Suicide Call Back: 1300 659 467 

The story Vets face burnout and abuse first appeared on The Maitland Mercury.

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