Why online bullying is a new problem for vet suicides…

Vet cyberbulling during grief

Unfortunately vets deal with life and death every day, patients will die. With this there are owners who are suffering from grief. It is an emotional time that can quickly escalate out of control by doing what now comes naturally and posting about it onto social media.

Often these stories are emotional, they are however only the owners version of the story. Why? It is really simple – vets are bound by rules on patient confidentiality – they cannot share anything about a patient or owner publically online or elsewhere. It is a offence with the RCVS for which they can be struck off and lose their license, their income, and their career.

Most vets are compassionate people, dealing with death so often means that many are trained in the process of grief. This is why often an angry owner will just be allowed to make threats, and given time and space to calm down after losing their loved pet. Anger is part of the grieving process which is split into 5 stages:

  • The first stage is that of denial that their pet is dead, this is often rapid and is a stage where a person refuses to accept what has happened.
  • This is followed by the second stage – that of Anger – the pain of loss is so great that we cannot cope so the pain of loss is reflected out as anger. This can be at anyone – however as vets that care for animals it is often directed towards the doctor that tried to save them. During this stage it is a vicious cycle as the owner then feels guilty about being angry and becomes even angrier.
  • Once through the anger the healing process begins – the next stage is bargaining – the what if stage. Its where you attempt to regain control – where you start questioning what you did looking at ways that things may have been different. What if you went to vets sooner? What if you got a second opinion? What if…?
  • Then is a stage of depression – where the loss breaks through and we prepare to deal with the loss. Often a quite personal stage where we prepare to say goodbye to our loved one.
  • Finally is acceptance – not everyone will ever get here. It is the stage of making peace – of calm withdrawal. It is not a happy stage, however it the stage that allows you to move on.

Vets are taught these stages; they are taught that anger is normal, and whilst not psychiatrists they are taught to support the owner through the process. They may suggest that you call or come back in a few days once this stage is past. In the past before social media came about this was not an issue as owners would share with friends and family.

However social media is a boulder on top of mountain, once you give it a push it is very difficult to stop rolling. A single post made in this anger stage can now be picked up by hundreds or thousands of people you do not know all out for justice. Whilst during the anger stage this group outrage at the perceived injustice may help you feel better it will outlive your anger.

Vets already have the highest rate of suicide for any job – every day is an emotional rollercoaster. A vet may start with an euthanasia of a unwanted puppy, then fail to save a loved cat hit by a car, then have to do consultations with the client that cannot afford the needed medications within a single hour… And then they have to keep going the rest of the day. Vets often are perfectionists – we like to be in control and we do not like to lose a single patient – it is often these patients that we think about at night instead of the 99 others that we succeeded in helping. Vets care a whole lot more than you will ever realise as we are taught that we need to support you as owners so often hide our own pain

Unfortunately vets are not taught public relations – there is simply not time with everything that vets have to learn in school. So when that anger snowballs into a massive thing online by social media with random people calling them monsters – or worse. When their own clients (who may have an emergency) with their pets cannot get through because of the abusive phone calls and emails. It leaves a vet feeling helpless, alone, and can even drive them to turn to suicide as the only option when they give up..

There is very little support for vets in this situation right now – it is something new from a very old grieving process. Before social media speaking to friends and family was self-limiting – it let people go home and talk through what happened slowly with the time to heal. Now social media allows someone that is blinded by anger reach a worldwide audience right from the front step of the vet office.

And those are words that cannot be taken back. Anything online will be there forever in some form, angry messages are emotional and spread faster than any plea to take them back when you leave the stage of anger.

It is not just one country – it happens worldwide – just yesterday I wrote about a shelter vet in Taiwan, and there was a vet who saved a cat in New York. Both of these were directly related to social media and cyberbullying. Many times it doesn’t even reach the news – not a week goes by where I don’t see at least one vet being targeted online. Just yesterday a owner lost a tortoise – and in anger posted onto social media about it… These are some of the replies by strangers with just one side of this story…
2 3 4 5 6If you are that vet that is a target of cyberbullying – then reach out! There is http://vetlife.org.uk which is a confidential telephone & email support service for vets. Even just talk to a colleague or friend…

Somehow we need a solution to this – whether it is better education of clients – or development of a grief app for the smartphone to add a delay to posts so that it can be reflected on before being made public after the anger stage if there is still a need…