Why Veterinarians Have Double the Suicide Rate of the General Public

There are no doubts that the role of a veterinary surgeon is a stressful one. On a daily basis, they can be on call at all times of day and night, treating injured and sick animals, coping with the distress of owners, putting dying animals to sleep, and making clinical decisions regarding livestock that can impact on the finances of agricultural businesses. People working as veterinary surgeons are often juggling their stressful professional lives with their family commitments and a range of other responsibilities. Despite most people acknowledging this, statistics relating to people in this profession that were published in 2015 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made shocking reading.

In the general population, approximately 3.5% of adult males and 4.4% of adult females will suffer from severe psychological distress. In comparison, the figures for veterinarians are 6.8% of males and 10.9% of females. Similarly, 19% of female and 14% of male veterinarians have experienced suicidal thoughts. This is the e1uivalent to three times the frequency of the general population in the United States. Shockingly, 1.1% of males and 1.4% of females in the veterinary industry have even attempted suicide.

Furthermore, depressive episodes are more common amongst those working in this profession as the statistics show that they are 1.5 times more likely to experience bouts of depression. Since their veterinary school graduation, up to 24.5% of males and 36.7% of females have suffered from depressive episodes.

The statistics have also revealed that it is not only those working as veterinary surgeons who are suffering from mental health problems in this industry. Many other professions working with animals also appear to be at a higher risk in comparison to the general population. Examples of such professions include behaviorists, technicians, and therapists. In many cases, this has led to talented and experienced individuals leaving their profession.

Shana Bohac, DVM, a veterinarian in Edna, Texas, has described this as a multifactional problem. She identified some of the contributing factors to be student loans, stress, the frequency of patient death, compassion fatigue, attitudes towards euthanasia and individual personalities. She went on to support her argument by saying that veterinarians are perfectionists who are afraid of failure and have a tendency to internalize their problems.

Her points were supported by the views of David Bartram, BVetMed, DECSRHM, FRCVS. The first point he made is that veterinarians often have high-achieving personalities, and this comes with attendant neuroses. His second point was the training and the practice are natural inducers of stress. Third, he said that veterinarians have easy access to lethal drugs and this may contribute to the high levels of successful suicide attempts. Finally, he made the point that euthanasia as a way to end suffering is all part of the philosophy of those in the profession.

While veterinarians often share a set of personality traits that help them to become professionally successful, it is often the exact same traits that work to their detriment. Managing the emotional aspects of this job is something that many professionals find difficult and will often result in them experiencing mental health problems.

In relation to these findings, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) is now taking action in an attempt to prevent mental illness in the profession. They have also identified two further issues. The first is that there is now a higher percentage of women in the profession or training for these roles and women are statistically more likely to suffer from depression and experience suicidal thoughts. Secondly, there is now a greater financial strain on those entering the profession due to massive loan obligations and the stress and anxiety that comes with debt. The AVMA is advising those who need it to seek help.

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