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Vets More Likely to Suffer From Mental Illness, Study Shows

A questionnaire completed by more than 10,000 working veterinarians found that 7 percent of men and just over 1 in 10 women displayed signs of serious psychological distress.

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Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News

U.S. veterinarians suffer higher rates of suicidal thoughts and depression compared to the general adult population, a government study has found.

An online questionnaire completed by more than 10,000 working veterinarians found that 7 percent of men and just over 1 in 10 women displayed signs of serious psychological distress. In addition, about 1 in 6 respondents had entertained suicidal thoughts since graduation from veterinary school.

The subject of suicide and depression in the veterinary profession was brought into focus again in September 2014 when animal behaviorist Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, killed herself in her Davis, Calif., home. Colleagues reported seeing few or no signs of mental distress in Yin in the weeks leading up to her death.

The government study, released Feb. 13, was conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in cooperation with Veterinary Information Network and other partners.

The findings also showed that among veterinarians, 1.1 percent of men and 1.4 percent of women had attempted suicide. The percentages were lower than those for U.S. adults in general, but for a tragic reason.

Kimberly A. May, DVM, MS, the American Veterinary Medical Association’s assistant director of professional and public affairs, said the authors pointed out that animal drugs are sometimes used in suicides.

“Due to veterinarians’ ready access to drugs … they are more likely to be successful in their suicide attempts, so there are fewer survivors to respond to the survey,” Dr. May wrote in her AVMA@Work blog.

By the Numbers

The questionnaire made use of the Kessler-6 psychological distress scale, which screens for serious mental illness. Two-thirds of the 10,254 respondents were small animal practitioners, and an equal number were female. One in 3 had been practicing for less than 10 years.

Contrasting veterinarians and U.S. adults, the researchers found that:

  • 6.8 percent of male veterinarians and 10.9 percent of their female colleagues had serious psychological distress. That compared with 3.5 percent of U.S. males and 4.4 percent of females.
  • 24.5 percent of male and 36.7 percent of female vets experienced depressive episodes after graduation. The lifetime prevalence in the U.S. adult population was 15.1 and 22.9 percent, respectively.
  • 14.4 percent of male and 19.1 percent of female vets reported suicide ideation, or suicidal thoughts, after graduation. The rates in the general population were 5.1 and7.1 percent, respectively.

The complete study may be published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, May said.

Why are veterinarians at higher risk of having mental health problems?

“The three primary stressors identified by the respondents were the demands of veterinary practice, veterinary practice management responsibilities, and professional mistakes and client complaints,” May noted.

What to Do

There is no shame in seeking assistance, May wrote in her AVMA@Work blog.

“There is a stigma among our profession toward those with mental illness, as though mental illness is a weakness that should be stifled, overcome or simply cut out like a surgeon excising a growth,” she said. “But it’s not that simple. Mental illness is not a weakness or a personal or professional failing; it’s a real medical condition that must be treated.”

Across the Atlantic, the British Veterinary Association and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) are working together on the issues of mental health and personal well-being.

The RCVS in February agreed to spend 1 million pounds, or about $1.5 million, on the topic. The major recipients are the Veterinary Surgeons’ Health Support Program, which deals with mental health issues and addiction, and the new Mind Matters Initiative, whose sponsors include the Veterinary Benevolent Fund and the British Veterinary Nursing Association.

Rosie Allister, BVSc, MSc, who serves as a director of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund and conducts research into veterinarian well-being, echoed May about the aspect of shame when seeking assistance.

Writing as a blogger for Vet Futures, a program funded by the BVA and RCVS, Dr. Allister noted that asking for help “takes real strength.”

“In veterinary professional culture there is an incredibly strong work ethic and a selflessness in terms of routinely making animal welfare a higher priority than our own,” she wrote. “We feel that, to encourage clients to trust us and to meet their expectations, we need to appear contained, professional and flawless. So it is hard for vets to ask for help.

“Looking to the future,” she said, “we need to better understand who is most at risk, how to reach out to them, and how we can start to change our culture so that it is OK to ask for help.”

In the U.S., the AVMA in July will host presentations on emotional and mental wellness during the organization’s annual convention in Boston.

The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges has scheduled its third Health and Wellness Summit for Nov. 2 and 3 at the University of Tennessee. The program will focus on veterinary students and recent graduates.

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