Author

Stephen J. Birchard DVM, MS, Diplomate ACVS

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Veterinarians and Suicide: Why does it happen and how can it be prevented.

Finding Calm Amid the Chaos: 
When its not the patient that needs a wellness check, but the veterinarian.
by Malinda Larkin
1368 JAVMA News: November 15, 2013 Vol. 243, No. 10 

Summary

This JAVMA article addresses a sensitive but important subject, the mental health of veterinarians. While the general public seems to view us as the happiest people in the world because we love animals and have devoted our lives to helping them, the truth is that it's a profession that demands a lot of its doctors and takes a toll on their physical and mental well being. In this article the author sheds light on some disturbing evidence that some veterinarians find the job overwhelming. As a result their mental health suffers, sometimes even to the point of suicide.

Selected key points of the paper:

  • Veterinarians are 3 – 4 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population.
  • Veterinarians tend to have personality traits that predispose us to mental health problems (perfectionism, neuroticism, and conscientiousness).
  • Many veterinarians with suicidal thoughts or behavior choose not to talk to anyone about their problems.
  • Female veterinarians, young veterinarians, and those working alone are at more risk for mental health problems.
  • Suicidal thoughts are first encountered during the transition from vet school to private practice.
  • Resources for prevention and treatment of mental health issues are lacking in many areas.
Veterinarians face incredible stress everyday. As the article states, student debt, demanding clients, keeping up with new information, increasing levels of standard of care, and competition from spay/neuter clinics and specialty practices are all factors leading to frustration and unhappiness. Long hours in clinics contribute to both mental and physical health problems. Veterinarians have ready access to controlled drugs, and we are trained to help owners consider euthanasia of their animal as an option to end pain and suffering.

An increased awareness of the problem is discussed in the paper. Presentations at veterinary conferences have addressed the issue, and The Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine recently hosted a Health and Wellness Summit to create an open forum where people could talk about the problem. At the summit there were attendees from 22 veterinary colleges including administrators and mental health professionals. The issue appears to be getting more exposure, and more people are talking about it.

To help prevent mental health issues, the author includes “Strategies for enhancing and sustaining individual well-being”, such as connecting to people, regular exercise, life long learning, maintaining a positive attitude, and accepting who you are and what you have to offer. The AVMA website (www.avma.org/wellness) now has information in its “Peer Assistance and Wellness” section to assist struggling veterinarians. Resources such as a stress checklist and a work-life balance reading list are available on the site.

Commentary
Many years ago I experienced the loss of a colleague due to suicide. I worked with her at the Animal Medical Center in New York City. She was an intelligent, energetic, and highly motivated veterinarian. It’s sad to think there are so many members of our profession who have these kinds of struggles.  The job demands a lot, and sometimes it is simply overwhelming. Unrealistic and angry clients, animals with terminal illnesses, euthanasia, and handling fractious animals are just a few of the daily duties that can stretch our physical and mental capabilities to their limits. We are very good at consoling owners with sick and dying animals, but who consoles us? I’m glad the JAVMA published this eye-opening article; hopefully it will stimulate an ongoing discussion of the problem and how it can be treated. Maybe the old adage: “Physician, heal thyself.” should be modified to: “Veterinarian, heal your colleagues.”

Tell me what you think about these issues.

What are the most frustrating or stressful aspects of your job?

How do you cope with the rigors of being a veterinarian?

What would you add to the list of wellness strategies that the article outlines?

What does the profession as a whole need to do to help our colleagues who are struggling?

References

Veterinary surgeons and suicide: a structured review of possible influences on increased risk. Bartram DJ, Baldwin DS. Vet Rec 166(13):388-397, 2010.