P.E.I. Atlantic Veterinary College continues to challenge suicide trends in veterinarians

By Abigail Cox

April 15, 2021

Staff at the Atlantic Veterinary College continue to raise awareness and support for mental health in the veterinarian profession. Sapphire MacPhee (left) is the wellness facilitator and Tammy Muirhead (right) is a professor and the chair of the health and wellness committee at the college. Photo by Abigail Cox.


Karen Yetman worries about what life will be like when she finally becomes a veterinarian.

Research suggests she should be.

That’s because 26.2 per cent of Canadian veterinarians have thought about suicide in the last 12 months and vets are 2.5 times more likely than the general public to die by suicide, according to a 2020 study published by the Ontario Veterinary College.

“It’s really hard when you see that in the profession there are such high suicide rates,” said Yetman, a second-year student at the Atlantic Veterinary College.

“How do you think we would feel going home and not being able to help that pet. We’re taking that home with us.”

It seems like every couple of weeks you’re hearing of another support staff, veterinarian or vet student who have taken their life, Yetman said.

The college has focused on increasing its support for vet students over the last few years and incorporated new materials in the program to try to better prepare them for working in the profession.

The college started a health and wellness committee four years ago. It provides students with support for mental health, academics, stress and over-all well-being.

The committee appoints six vet students from either second or third year to be peer helpers.

They are trained to know where to direct students, depending on what they may be struggling with.

Tammy Muirhead is the chair of the health and wellness committee and is a certified Doctor of Veterinary Medicine who teaches at the college.

Before the changes, they had been missing the structure that the committee provides. The support was always there, but students just didn’t recognize how to find it, she said.

“They have a lot of support and now they know it’s out there.”

Muirhead teaches a class called Professional Foundations, which helps students learn how to cope with being in vet school. It discusses difficult situations they may be put in starting in their field and how to deal with them.

“I fear that when they have their first mistake or failure, and they will because everybody does, how they’re going to handle it and how the people in their work environment are going to influence them.”

The profession is demanding and often clients will put a lot of pressure on their vet to help their pet, when sometimes it just isn’t possible, she said.

They want students to realize sometimes they will need to put in long hours, especially as a new veterinarian, but it is also important to take time for themselves.

Sapphire MacPhee is the wellness facilitator at the college, she was hired three years ago, so the students had someone to reach out to outside of their professors.

It is okay to say that you’re not comfortable doing something as a new veterinarian, MacPhee said.

“If you’re not taking care of yourself, then a lot of the regular stressors of the job are going to affect you differently.”

There are also organizations outside of the college that offer support for members of the veterinarian community.

Not One More Vet, founded in 2014, raises awareness and provides support for all members of veterinary teams and students struggling or considering suicide.

You can visit their website at nomv.org.

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