Photos Provided by Elizabeth Chosa, DVM
Veterinarians go into the profession out of love for animals. Yet, they learn that the day-to-day reality is difficult.
This combination creates a perfect storm for depression and even despair. According to a study from AVMA,1 one in six veterinarians has considered suicide, and they’re three times more likely to die by suicide than the general public.
For those in the veterinarian community, it’s personal. Elizabeth Chosa, DVM, knows of three classmates and numerous colleagues who have taken their lives since 2005. Then, a year into the pandemic, four veterinary professionals died by suicide within a few weeks.
Following this devastation, Dr. Chosa and her friend and colleague Blair McConnel, VMD, MBA, put their heads together on ways to make a positive impact.
“It’s no secret there’s a mental health crisis in the profession. Many veterinarians say, ‘I don’t know if I can stay in this profession. I’m miserable. This is all I ever wanted to do, and now I don’t know what to do.’ So we talked about what we could do about it,” Dr. Chosa shares.
They learned more about programs offered by Not One More Vet (NOMV),2 whose mission is to support the animal care community through education, peer-to-peer support and grants. NOMV focuses primarily on those in crisis, which led to Drs. Chosa and McConnel to consider a different approach based on early intervention.
Dr. Chosa says, “We wanted to know how we could PREVENT crisis.”
The duo hit upon the idea of peer-to-peer support groups led by licensed mental health professionals. These would be a safe place for the veterinarian community to discuss concerns and build community before a crisis.
“We spoke to a mental health professional who shared data on support groups and how they help people feel safe and connected to others like themselves. They suggested we could offer support groups on relevant topics like building emotional resiliency and stamina, communicating with bewildered and upset pet parents, and much more,” Dr. Chosa shares.
Upon their research, they found a program at the University of Tennessee that offers social work training geared toward animal care teams.
“These Licensed Clinical Social Workers (LCSW) work specifically with veterinarians. Additionally, some veterinarians have gone through the training too,” adds Dr. Chosa.
It was then that the idea for the Veterinary Hope Foundation (VHF) was born. Drs. Chosa and McConnel decided to pursue the idea of offering support groups, but they needed funding to cover the costs of market research. Fortunately, IDEXX Foundations offered to fund both qualitative and quantitative research.
The qualitative research consisted of focus groups with 19 veterinarians and vet techs who either felt they have personally had their mental health impacted by their job or have witnessed their colleagues’ mental health be negatively impacted by their job.
The quantitative research included an online survey where 395 respondents had to qualify by agreeing to statements that indicated they have experienced issues related to mental wellbeing or are improving. Ninety-six percent of veterinarians who were screened qualified.
They then decided to test the waters with a few pilot groups to see if their time and effort was worthwhile.
The very first group proved the value of the concept: “The feedback has been really meaningful. Participants share statements like, ‘I feel seen for the first time.’ And, ‘I feel like the therapist understands me better than anyone.’ If we can help one person, that’s a win,” Dr. Chosa shares.
The live group sessions are held virtually, so people can participate from anywhere and enjoy the benefits of connecting with others in their profession.
“Most of our sessions are on weekends and evenings,” Dr. Chosa continues. “And people can register to participate in an upcoming support group. We ask for their role within the practice, year graduated from veterinary school, availability, and type of practice. When we start a new group, they receive an email offering them the chance to participate.”
The six-week program features a weekly meeting for 60-75 minutes. The goal is to create a safe space for peers to share concerns and build a support network. To support this goal, they group participants by practice focus (Equine, Small Animal, etc.) and their role in the practice.
As part of that community-building, VHF includes chat groups for people to share thoughts and ideas in between sessions: “Chat groups build connections and relationships. One of the most rewarding parts is seeing the community being built,” Dr. Chosa adds.
As of the time this article was written, nine participating mental health professionals led groups.
“There have been 12 groups so far with almost 100 participating veterinarians. We plan on two to three sessions a month for now. We’re growing slowly so we don’t outpace our resources,” Dr. Chosa continues. “As we get more sponsorships, we’ll be able to offer more groups. We also want to support technicians, practice managers, and everyone on the animal care team.”
If you’d like to participate in future VHF sessions or want to learn more about the program, visit veterinaryhope.org for details. +
- Tomasi, S., & Fechter-Legett, E. (2019). Suicide rate among veterinarians from 1979 through 2015. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 254(1), 104–112.
- Not One More Vet (NOMV). https://www.nomv.org/