Veterinarians And Compassion Fatigue, AKA Secondary Traumatic Stress
More and more, people both in and outside of the veterinary profession are recognizing that being a vet is difficult work psychologically. Though having a veterinary office may be, in some ways, a business like any other, vetinarians have it tough. They need to have a keen awareness of the human-animal bond; be able to identify and report abuse of both animals and people; make complicated ethical decisions (despite potentially having little training in such ethics); and even sometimes balance ethics, the law, and human wants. All of these high-pressure parts of the job are in addition to simply taking care of animals; this may lead to compassion fatigue, also referred to as secondary traumatic stress, or STS. The condition differs from post-traumatic stress disorder, because the person experiencing it is not necessarily the one suffering and experiencing the traumatic stress firsthand.
Trauma research has started to address STS as a “consequence of care work.” But there are still only a limited number of studies on STS that focus on coping mechanisms and self-care strategies. Longitudinal studies using reputable methods are also rare. Part of the problem around studying STS is that veterinarians are hesitant to acknowledge distress or seek help. This also adds to STS itself. Plus, society generally belittles the human-animal bond. So, STS in vets is taken less seriously. And it exists in this less well-respected context.
The purpose of this study was to explore the significance of human-animal bonds in veterinary work and how they contribute to STS. It argues that they should be “regarded as significant social determinants of health, impacting both professional and organizational well-being.” The article begins by outlining the settings vets need to work in, and the stresses they need to work under. They face cases of trauma, illness, injury, abuse, and death. On top of all of this, veterinarians often need to mediate the ethics of these choices with human guardians. And they may deal with various conflicts of interest. All of these aspects can lead to grim outcomes. A study from New Zealand showed that at least 2% of vets have attempted suicide. And another 30% have considered it. Studies from Europe have found that veterinarians have a mortality rate from suicide that is four times higher than that of the general population. And it is even twice that of other health care professionals.
The paper concludes by discussing potential new research avenues in STS and the veterinary profession. These include vets collaborating with social workers. This could provide new means of understanding how to support vets and vet techs. First and foremost, the lack of research needs to be addressed. This would not only raise awareness of STS among veterinarians, but also engage them in dialogue.
Animal advocates should note that human health care organizations commonly provide their staff some level of institutional resources to offset the stresses inherent to the job. But such institutional support is rare or nonexistent for vets. It might seem difficult for us to know how to support vets to help deal with or prevent STS. But working with local vets to develop support systems is one possible option.