High suicide risk in veterinary practitioners
A study published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association shows a significantly higher rate of death by suicide in veterinarians compared to the general population. The study, investigating suicide rates among female and male U.S. veterinary practitioners from 1979 to 2015, found male veterinarians were 2.1 times and female veterinarians were 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. These facts lie in stark contrast to the general U.S. population, in which females are more likely to consider suicide and males are more likely than females to die by suicide. The AVMA study indicates that, “an unusual paradigm seemingly exists within the veterinary profession, in which female veterinarians have a higher prevalence of risk factors for suicide.” With 2016 U.S. veterinary school enrollment now comprised of 80 percent females, the study predicted the number of suicide deaths among female veterinarians could increase.
Ragan Adams, MA, DVM, isn’t a mental health expert but as a longtime veterinarian, she said the numbers are troubling. To her, the cultural shift toward speaking openly about mental and behavioral health allows her to speak about it and how it affects the profession she loves.
“I think that I’m contributing in a beneficial way by saying, ‘sure, let’s talk about it so we can get at ease talking about it and then we can start getting some real answers’,” Adams said. “We’ve got to get rid of the stigma that it occurs, the stigma against talking about it, the stigma about getting help or seeking treatment and that can only occur when regular people talk about it.”
The above study, led by Tracy K. Witte, PhD., analyzed the 197 deaths of veterinary professionals and five veterinary students from 2003 to 2014 who died by suicide. According to the study, the transition in veterinary school enrollment since 1970 from being 90 percent male to 80 percent female and the associated sex differences in suicidal behavior, make the lack of studies problematic for a study group that has changed profoundly. With only three studies of suicides among U.S. veterinarians, two dating prior to 1996, the call is for additional data.
Of the veterinarian suicides studied, 79 percent were in a clinical occupation and 75 percent of male veterinarians and 70 percent of females worked exclusively or predominantly with companion animals. Research has indicated long work hours, work overload, practice management responsibilities, client expectations and complaints, euthanasia procedures, and poor work-life balance may be at play.
A focus on mental health, especially in farmers and ranchers, has borne crisis lines and a general awareness as producers face low commodity prices, weather woes, and other stressors. Adams said there are a number of factors the rise in suicides can be attributed to, making the need for studies and data urgent.
“It’s time to study this issue,” she said. “If this were an animal disease, we would have done research on it.”
Adams said veterinary schools around the country are talking with students about mental health, something she said she hopes will allow the conversation to continue with those students as they go into practice. Many veterinary schools, including Colorado State University, are also incorporating mental health information into the curriculum.
A recent survey cited in the study of 11,627 U.S. veterinarians found they were more likely to experience current serious psychological distress, have a history of depression, and have experienced suicidal ideation as compared to the general U.S. population.
One of the findings reveals that veterinarians as a whole did not have a higher likelihood of past suicide attempts, with two hypotheses offered by the authors. Either those in the occupation are less likely to act upon the suicidal thoughts they have or, more concerning is the hypothesis that veterinarians who are suicidal are more likely to have a fatal outcome on their first attempt. The study said pharmaceutical poisoning is the most common means with one of the study conclusions suggesting that improving administrative controls for pentobarbital (the drug most commonly used in euthanasia) access may be a prevention strategy.
A September NPR article on veterinary suicide said online trolling and threats from pet owners and others, who blame the veterinarians for the death of a companion animal are additional stressors. A cyberbullying campaign led to the 2014 suicide of a New York City veterinarian. In response, Not One More Vet, an online mental health support group for veterinarians was formed by Dr. Nicole McArthur. The Facebook group has over 18,000 members. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.