Not One More Vet: Veterinary peers discuss suicide, offer safe place for dialogue

Not One More Vet: Veterinary peers discuss suicide, offer safe place for dialogue

Founder Nicole McArthur hopes Facebook group will help struggling veterinarians know they’re not alone.
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May 14, 2016

Getty ImagesLast summer, during a Skype brainstorming session with my colleague Karen Bradley, DVM, to prepare for an upcoming session we were presenting at CVC, she asked me if I was a member of Not One More Vet.

No, I said. I had never heard of it.

“Let me send you an invite,” Karen offered.

A minute later, an invitation to join the secret facebook group Not One More Vet, NOMV for short, was in my inbox. Intrigued, I clicked “join.” I was instantly immersed in the secret world of veterinarians, where colleagues were jaw-droppingly open with each other, sharing their joys, their struggles, insider jokes and, all-too-often, desperate cries for help.

Initially it was overwhelming. I had a hard time reading the posts from more than 4,000 veterinarians around the world, too many of whom were struggling mentally, emotionally and financially with what is without a doubt a difficult profession. I know that. You know that.

But there were also moments of brilliance, when the group banded together to help one another in tangible ways—like sending a task force to check on an ailing colleague who had gone MIA or leaving phone numbers so that no one had to struggle alone. I have witnessed veterinarians grappling with suicidal tendencies reach out for a lifeline and find it in this group—which is why I reached out to the group’s founder to learn more.

NOMV was founded in 2014 by Nicole McArthur, DVM, a fellow alum of the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine and a practicing veterinarian in Northern California. I had the opportunity to speak with McArthur to get some additional insight into what inspired NOMV and how it’s impacting our profession. Here are the highlights from our conversation.

The cover photo for the Not One More Vet Facebook Group. Photo courtesy of Nicole McArthur.

Q: What inspired you to form this group?

A: I started Not One More Vet days after the suicide of Dr. Sophia Yin. A nonveterinarian friend of mine had heard about her death and was surprised to learn that veterinary medicine is the profession with the highest rate of suicide. She started a group text with me and two mutual friends: one a veterinary neurologist and the other a veterinary dermatologist.

At the time, I had essentially left the profession due to burnout and had no intentions of returning. I couldn’t understand why I was included in a conversation with two veterinarians I considered to be so much smarter and accomplished than me (I didn’t even consider myself a veterinarian at that point in time), but we had an amazing dialogue that evening.

During this group text, we talked openly about our fears and our struggles within the profession. This conversation made me realize that I was not alone in these fears, and I wanted to share that with my friends. So I started a secret Facebook page and invited classmates that I thought would “get it.” They added their friends and the group began to grow.

Q: What are the rules of the group? I assume they aren’t the same rules as Fight Club ...

A: We have 2 rules: (1) You MUST be a veterinarian, and (2) you must NOT be an asshole.

Q: How can a veterinarian join this group?

A: You must be on Facebook, since it’s a Facebook group. If you know someone who is a member, you can ask that they add you to the page. Otherwise you can send a message to me, Nicole Blackmer McArthur, or my co-admins Carrie Jurney and Jason Sweitzer, and ask to be added. We verify that each member is a veterinarian before officially adding them to the group.

Q: What kind of growth did the group experience?

A: When I started the page, I figured it would be me and some classmates and a few friends I have made in practice. The page grew slowly at first, and then suddenly a member announced that we had 1,000 members and I was stunned. We currently stand at over 4,500 members worldwide with some 250 waiting for approval.

Q: What has surprised you most?

A: The most surprising thing to me is anytime a veterinarian says, “This page helps me.” For example, one member was struggling and reached out on the NOMV page. I checked in with this member and here is the response I received:

Hi Nicole. I’m OK today, thank you. I’m blown away by this group. So many extraordinary people from all over the world and they all care about each other—people they’ve never met. It is the most comforting feeling knowing that when I need them, everyone is there, any time of the day or night. And they make me feel important, they make me smile, and I feel like I’m not so alone anymore. Thank you for bringing us all together. And thank you for checking in. I hope you have a wonderful day. Thank you, xoxo.

Q: What is a story that stands out to you?

A: In a post written by a member recovering from major surgery, he confided that he had been suicidal and was very open in sharing with us his emotional and physical recovery. I was stuck by not only his raw honesty but the incredible response he received from the members of our group. And I realized that veterinarians, who are so good at caring for our animal patients, are equally good at caring for our human colleagues.

Q: What is the purpose of the group?

A: The purpose of this group is twofold. First, this group is a safe place for veterinarians to openly discuss our concerns within the profession. Whether we struggle with difficult clients, a poor outcome in a case, debt, or balancing life and family, chances are that there is someone out there who has been in a similar situation. It can be incredibly comforting to know you are not alone in your struggles.

The second and ultimate goal of this group is to raise awareness about the fact that suicide is a very real problem within the veterinary profession. We all hear the statistic, but nobody ever talks about it. We don’t discuss why veterinarians are killing themselves more than any other group of professionals. There are multiple factors involved and there is no easy solution. My hope is that by just talking openly, our community will begin to learn and grow and eventually develop a solution to the problem of suicide in our industry.

Q: Do you think the group is accomplishing what it set out to do—to reduce the rate of suicide in our profession? Or is it too soon to tell?

A: I honestly don’t know. There have been several suicides within the veterinary community since this page was started, so it certainly doesn’t feel like we have done much to reduce the rate. But we are talking openly about it, about the many different factors that contribute to an individual making the decision to end his or her life. I am seeing industry magazines with headlines about suicide in our profession. Veterinary schools are employing full-time counselors to help their students. While I don’t believe that this is directly related to our page, I am thankful that we are beginning to view suicide as an actual problem and not some dark secret we’re not allowed to discuss.

Q: Why do you think veterinarians feel safe to share in the group? I mean—the group is huge and we say things there that we would never say anywhere else.

A: We veterinarians speak our own language and it is completely foreign to anyone outside our profession. When we are speaking amongst ourselves, nothing is lost in the translation of our weird and wonderful dialect.

Q: The loss of a NOMV group member in March hit everyone in the group hard.

A: The first I learned of his death was through a post from a member who did not name him out of respect for him and his family. As more and more members revealed his name, I felt it was important to say something to the group. Suicide carries such a huge stigma. Our culture has created a negative and even shameful image of a suicidal person. Yet here is a man who was well-liked by his classmates and was valedictorian of his class—the last person our society would consider to be “suicidal.” I want our colleagues to know that there should be no stigma. I feel that regardless of the circumstances that led to his death, we should honor his life.

Q: I’ve noticed the group taking proactive measures to connect with one another outside of NOMV: regional phone lists, a “healthy DVMs” page and more. Have you seen any success with those spinoffs?

A: The members on this page have come up with some incredibly innovative ideas on how to improve things in the profession. The phone list started with one member saying, “Hi. You OK? No? Call me.” And she listed her phone number. And another added a number, and another, and before I knew it, a Google doc named “NOMV Bad Day Phone List” was created. It stipulates at the very top that none of us are trained mental care professionals, but we all care about one another. There are currently 60 names and numbers on this list, which is pretty incredible.

I am aware of two other veterinary groups on Facebook: Under the Microscope and Vet-to-Vet. These groups aren’t spinoffs, but they are groups that were created with the idea that veterinarians are great at helping veterinarians. Each group has its own personality and focus, but we all share one unifying goal, and that is to support one another. Personally, I love that there are so many options for veterinarians to go and find support from colleagues.

Q: Where do you see the group headed from here?

A: Members have suggested that we make the page bigger and have departments, much like VIN. But I’m a minimalist and I want to stay true to the original intent: to provide a safe place for veterinarians to discuss our concerns openly. I love all of the spinoffs that have been created and I look forward to wherever our members take us.

Q: What else would you like to say to our veterinary community?

A: I am the daughter of a veterinarian and have seen the profession evolve over the past four decades. There have always been struggles for which our innovative colleagues have worked to find solutions. One of our current struggles, the increased rate of suicide amongst veterinarians, is a complex issue. There are many confounding factors involved and there is no quick fix. Some issues are relatively new to our profession, such as cyberbullying: we know that online attacks played a role in Dr. Shirley Koshi’s suicide. Others are not new, like student debt. My dad graduated from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine in 1970 owing about $3,000, which at the time was the price of a new car. Today, we have some veterinary students owing upwards of $300,000, which in some areas is a mortgage on a nice home. This is a large burden to shoulder when considering that the average starting salary of a new grad is $60,000 a year.

Veterinarians are an intelligent, resourceful and compassionate breed. And we are resilient. We will always have struggles in our profession, but with so many support groups available to us, we no longer have to struggle alone.

Dr. Sarah Wooten graduated from UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. A member of the American Society of Veterinary Journalists, she divides her professional time between private practice at Sheep Draw Veterinary Hospital in Greeley, Colorado, writing articles and filming video content for dvm360 and other media outlets, and speaking on leadership and associate veterinarian issues. In addition to her adventures in veterinary medicine, she also owns a tea tavern in Greeley.