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High Suicide Rate Among Veterinarians Prompts Calls for Intervention
Results from the first mental health survey of U.S. veterinarians show that the people who care for our beloved pets contemplate taking their own lives at three times the national average. Specifically, the recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that veterinarians suffer from serious psychiatric disorders and feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness at two to three times the rate of the general population.
The study’s results come in the wake of the high-profile suicides of two American veterinarians, Sophia Yin and Shirley Koshi. In addition, mental health surveys given to veterinarians in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, have reached similar conclusions. For example, a report in August by the Victorian Coroners Prevention Unit in Australia found that paramedics in the state of Victoria were second only to veterinarians when it came to occupations with the highest suicide rates. A 2010 British paper found that veterinarians were four times as likely to commit suicide as the average population.
A veterinarian’s job may not seem like one prone to stress. But what most people probably don’t think about is that veterinarians experience death at five times the rate of human doctors and that their patients are often animals they have cared for over many years. The sad irony is that many have been drawn to the profession by their love of animals, only to find that much of their practice entails ending their lives.
And worse, unlike in human medicine, pet owners have the option of “euthanizing” animals with treatable conditions if the treatment is too expensive or even too inconvenient. That is a hard pill for a vet to swallow, but part of the job.
“Euthanasia is really draining,” said Julie Moews, a veterinarian in Carlsbad, California, and, “sometimes I would do three or four a week.” A recent case became all that more difficult, she said, because she had just lost her mother.
“Doing that euthanasia right after my mom passed was hard,” she said. “Of course people and animals are different, but they are both our loved ones. There are a lot of similarities.”
Moews, no longer in private practice, now cares for the medical needs of animals in shelters. The euthanasia is typically left to staff members, though Moews may step in when an infected animal needs to be put down quickly or another emergency arises. She’s an avid runner, which is just one of the ways she releases stress. She also meditates and says she has a good support network around her.
Familiarity With the Dying Process
The CDC’s study was Dr. Randall Nett’s idea. A CDC physician, Dr. Nett is also married to a veterinarian and decided to launch the survey after coming across an article about veterinarians and suicide in his wife’s copy of the Journal of the American Veterinary Association. Dr. Nett partnered with Tracy Witte, a psychologist at Auburn University, for the CDC survey of more than 10,000 practicing veterinarians.
Witte believes veterinarians’ knowledge about euthanasia may embolden them when it comes to taking their own lives.
“If you have experience seeing death and bringing it about, talking to pet owners and explaining that the process is painless, that it’s the right thing to do, I wondered, does that process make it less scary?” Witte told VIN News Service.
The idea that veterinarians are prone to suicide doesn’t come as news to those in the profession.
“Everyone seems to have a friend, or a friend of a friend,” who has struggled, said Moews, who has been in practice since 1997. “But it really seems to have come to light in the last five years or so.”
It was 2012 when a study called “Failure to Acknowledge High Risk of Suicide Among Veterinarians” found that only 10% of veterinary student respondents believed that suicide risk was higher among veterinarians than in the general population. The study by Dr. Greg Skipper, MD, director of Professional Health Services at Promises Treatment Centers, and Jerome Williams, chairman of the Alabama Veterinary Professional Wellness Program, surveyed veterinary students and licensed vets in Alabama and all veterinary association executive directors in the United States. Only 11% of licensed veterinarians believed that suicide was a problem in the profession, although 66% indicated that they had been “clinically depressed.”
Dr. Skipper is a former medical director of the Alabama Physician Health Program and the Alabama Veterinary Professional Wellness Program. In that capacity, Dr. Skipper would visit hospitals and clinics in Alabama in an effort to educate physicians on mental health and substance abuse but had not been able to reach veterinarians in the same way.
“We think the reason [veterinarians] are more difficult to reach is that unlike physicians, who frequent hospitals where they obtain much of their continuing education daily and where we can give talks, veterinarians are more isolated in their private clinics, especially veterinarians with mental health problems,” Dr. Skipper told Veterinary Practice News. “Troubled vets especially seem to become reclusive, and their employees are reluctant to report them. Therefore they are more seriously ill by the time they come to our attention.”
Veterinary Schools Step Up
Understanding and acknowledging the disproportionately high rates of suicide and stress among veterinarians is critical in preventing and treating the people who care for our pets. And this is even more important as the face of the profession becomes increasingly female.
“Going forward in the field of veterinary medicine, there’s going to be a greater number of female veterinarians than there even is now, based on veterinary school enrollment,” Dr. Nett said. “Because females experience depression and suicidal thoughts more often than males, relatively speaking, you’ll likely have a higher proportion of veterinarians who are experiencing these risk factors for suicide, compared with other similar occupations.”
For its part, the American Veterinary Medical Association offers a self-assessment and provides information on mental health issues ranging from compassion fatigue to tips for self-care. Veterinary schools across the country are also addressing the problem.
At the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, a program called “The Healer’s Art” offers topics including acceptance, loss, grief, healing and self-care practices.
At the University of Pennsylvania, the veterinary school in October instituted a program that calls for a mental health clinician to be stationed in the veterinary hospital in the evenings to accommodate the tight clinical schedules of veterinary students. The aim is to better identify mental health issues among veterinary students and address them.
Also this fall, the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine began requiring its students to take success and wellness courses all four years.
“The whole profession is starting to take notice of wellness issues,” Elizabeth Strand, PhD, founding director of UT’s Veterinary Social Work program, told dvm360. “This is non-negotiable information that you have to have to be a successful veterinarian.”
Finally, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline offers emotional support and crisis intervention as well as information on how to find a therapist or support group near you.
Read Part 2 here.
By Laura Nott
Notes from the Field: Prevalence of Risk Factors for Suicide Among Veterinarians — United States, 2014
VIN News Service
Veterinary Practices News, April 2009, May 2010
Veterinary News dvm360.com