SINGAPORE: Just over a year into his first job since graduating, veterinary surgeon Chow Hao Ting decided to take a break from the industry.
“There was this difference between what I thought the profession would be like, and what it turned out to be,” said the 29-year-old, citing financial pressures and having to deal with pet owners as some of the challenges.
His timeout helped readjust his expectations and enter a better headspace - Dr Chow has since returned to work. But for other local vets choosing to soldier on, the struggles they face span the spectrum of mental strain, compassion fatigue, clinical depression and in most extreme cases, suicidal tendencies.
Several vets interviewed by Channel NewsAsia attested to these phenomena, in the absence of statistics for mental illness or suicide rates broken down by profession in Singapore. The Singapore Veterinary Association also acknowledged that “mental well-being among local veterinarians is an important issue and slowly gaining awareness in recent years”.
Still, across Asia, doctors say these topics remain largely “taboo” - even in the wake of a widely-reported case in 2016, when a Taiwanese vet took her own life and explained in suicide notes how she could no longer stand having to euthanise so many dogs.
On the other hand, numerous global studies over the years have indicated elevated rates of mental illness and suicide among veterinarians in the US, UK, Australia, Scandinavia and more - sometimes as high as up to four times that of the general population.
The latest, conducted by pharmaceutical firm Merck in the US early this year, revealed veterinarians as having lower degrees of well-being than the general population, and that around 25 per cent of them have considered suicide at some point.
“WE’RE NOT OUT TO CHEAT OR KILL”
One Singaporean vet, who requested not to be identified, said feeling low and wanting to throw in the towel were common threads during her career of over two decades.
Along with several counterparts, she affirmed that a major factor - especially during the early years of work - is the stress, trauma and guilt associated with performing euthanasia.
“Even though it has to be done because the animal is suffering or there’s no quality of life anymore, none of us like doing it. We go to vet school not to put animals to sleep,” said the seasoned vet.
“And in front of clients, you can’t show emotions. There’s nowhere for these to go - that’s why so many vets get depressed.”
“In the beginning, I was so sad that I went home and I cried every day.” She paused. “Well now I still cry, but not as much.”
Over time vets learn to better manage the process but it is nearly impossible to be “numb” to it, said one.
Pet owner Roy Chan empathises with the difficult task. “Our own medical doctors don't even administer euthanasia,” said the 32-year-old, who has had a smooth fox terrier for eight years. “But vets have to terminate the very lives they try to save.”
Although he described the relationship with his dog’s vet as positive, multiple animal doctors listed pet owners as another stress factor, primarily due to “unrealistic expectations” over cost or treatment outcomes.
“We really get pet owners who are self-entitled, demanding and treat the clinic staff horribly … all that accumulates with time,” said Dr Chow. “Ultimately we are here to help and just earn a living, but often we are the target of pet owners' frustrations and sorrows.”
Said another vet: “We’re not saints, but we’re not out to cheat you of your money or kill animals either.”
Dr Grace Heng, who has been practicing for 18 years, observed that pet owners often treat pets like their children. “That’s ok … until you start shouting, verbally abusing, threatening to sue, or going online to tell one side of the story,” she said. “I’m not really affected, but some of my younger colleagues might feel down.”
“Social media shaming is the trend now, so you get slammed a lot more than before,” said a vet who wanted to remain anonymous. “If there was malpractice, then I’m all for it - but too often, accounts shared online are incomplete or inaccurate or just plain unfair.”
"We get a certain degree of negative feedback that is sometimes not constructive at all,” said Dr Brian Loon. “it's more of just lashing out, complaining, demeaning, making it personal with the vet."
THE IMPORTANCE OF OPENING UP
Specialised psychological or emotional support for vets is not available in Singapore nor the region. In contrast, the national veterinary associations of the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand provide free counselling and a glut of online and offline resources.
But change might be underway, in Singapore at least. This year, the National University of Singapore started the country’s first degree programme in veterinary medicine, run in conjunction with the University of Melbourne. The latter institution places much emphasis on veterinary well-being through staffing, lectures, workshops, mentoring, grants and more.
The Singapore Veterinary Association told Channel NewsAsia it “hopes to collaborate with local authorities and veterinarians in the near future to create more formal programmes to support our veterinarians".
A Singaporean veterinary undergraduate at Massey University in New Zealand, Vicki Lim, has also founded The Riptide Project, an initiative encouraging vets worldwide to open up on mental health in support of one another.
And local vets are calling for more public education on the veterinary practice, while noting the workplace and colleagues as a key source of solace. “That’s how we voice our frustrations - we talk to each other. It’s the first line of defence,” said one.
“It’s our culture too, Asians are shy. But in future when the issue is more publicised, people might be more forthcoming when they need help, and finally open up.”
In the meantime, vets carry on - despite having to end lives, handle difficult pet owners or brace for vilifying remarks on Facebook, it’s not all doom and gloom.
“Listen, we are only human - we get emotional, and this is an emotional line,” said one vet. “But there are plenty of positive outcomes and happy cases too, and each one brightens the day.”
Where to find help:
Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline: 6389 2222
Samaritans of Singapore Hotline: 1800 221 4444
Singapore Association of Mental Health Helpline: 1800 283 7019