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Explaining Suicidal Tendencies Among Veterinarians

By Dr. Patty Khuly

Caution: Important but depressing information ahead. Read at your own risk but know that doing so means you care about your veterinarian’s mental health. As a veterinarian I thank you in advance for soldiering on.

A few years ago, the global veterinary population sat up and took notice of a scholarly paper out of the UK:

Confirming the findings of previous UK research into high suicide rates among veterinarians, this new paper confirmed a two-fold increase in suicide when compared with human health care workers. (Six out of 16,000 every year.)

Distinguishing itself from previous work, this paper delved deeper by attempting to determine the cause of the human-animal discrepancy.

So why exactly is it that UK veterinarians kill themselves at such alarming rates relative to human health workers? And can the same figures be extrapolated to US veterinarians, or might we be somewhat more immune to the lifestyle stressors and psychological makeup that seems to predispose us to suicidal behavior?

Turns out UK and US veterinary issues are pretty similar. Here’s what the paper proposes as an explanation for why veterinarians suffer increased suicidal tendencies:

  • Veterinary medicine is considered a highly competitive career path. Entrance to veterinary schools is typically limited to high achievers whose personality traits might include risk factors for suicidal behaviors.
  • Our working environment can be stressful. It’s marked by long hours, impressive psychological demands, low levels of support from our peers, and high expectations from clients.
  • Many of us work in practices in which we’re the sole practitioners. This can leave us feeling professionally and socially isolated, which means we may be more vulnerable to depression and suicide.
  • Ready access to lethal drugs and knowledge of how to use them undeniably puts us at a greater risk for suicide. And since thoughts of suicide tend to be impulsive, our immediate access to drugs puts us at especially high risk.

    Note: At least half of the male veterinarians who committed suicide between 1982 and 1996 in England and Wales used barbiturates. In fact, deliberate poisoning accounted for eighty to ninety percent of all veterinarian suicides during this period.
  • We veterinarians tend to consider euthanasia to be a highly effective way of alleviating suffering. Consequently, we may come to regard it as a positive solution to our own troubles.
  • Suicide “contagion" is a well-known phenomenon. Knowledge of suicides among colleagues may leave other veterinarians more vulnerable to taking our own lives.

It remains to be seen whether US vets will succumb to the same high rates, but current reports suggest we’re not too far off.

Given the higher financial stresses of being a veterinarian in the US (the high debt to income ratio among younger veterinarians is absolutely staggering!), it only makes sense that we’d suffer rates of suicide on par with our UK cousins.

In any case, it’s clear that the veterinary profession needs to take steps to address the suicide triggers all veterinarians appear to be laboring under. Unfortunately, however, precious little has been done to intervene. Here’s hoping the global veterinary community does more than gawk at findings that deserve more than mere acknowledgement.

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