Why do so many veterinarians contemplate suicide?
Although the reasons for the higher suicide risk are not immediately clear, a number of likely factors have been identified. These include:
The coping styles and personality traits of individuals applying to veterinary school.
Having the knowledge of which doses and drugs are likely to cause death by intentional self-poisoning, as well as having ready access to these medicines.
Experiencing both professional and social isolation.
Working within a ‘culture of death’ (such as an acceptance of slaughter and animal euthanasia).
High levels of student debt from veterinary school.
Dealing with the increasing expectations from clients.
Fearing the stigma involved with seeking help.
Working long hours.
There is without a doubt a significant emotional cost to working as a vet, and euthanasia of companion animals is quite a significant contributing factor. Euthanasia can be highly distressing for pet owners, and while their emotional reactions are considered ‘normal’ in these circumstances, the vet and vet nurses are expected to remain professionally objective during the process of euthanasia, despite what they themselves may also be feeling. To what extent the actual process of euthanising a pet in this context impacts upon vets and vet nurses is not well-researched.
Some studies suggest that vets may kill themselves because they are more exposed to the practice of euthanasia, and therefore may have different attitudes towards life and death. They may experience conflict between their values of wanting to preserve the life of animals and being unable to successfully treat these animals for whatever reason. This conflict could possibly be responsible for vets lowering any reservations they have with suicide being a solution to their own problems —providing a self-justification for them to take their own life. Seeing euthanasia as an end to pain and suffering can often reinforce to the vet who is suffering that this is an option they can choose to end their own pain and suffering. Perhaps adding to this risk, vets have knowledge of, and ready access to, medicines for self-poisoning, and are also under less supervision than doctors with their use of medicines.
Other factors having a potential impact on suicide within the veterinary profession include stress, working long hours, working on-call and after-hours, expectations of clients, relationships with peers, clients, and managers, dealing with difficult clients, unexpected clinical outcomes, emotional exhaustion, inadequate professional support, lack of resources, personal finances, making professional mistakes, and the possibility of litigation or client complaints. Furthermore, factors such as overwork, substance abuse, compassion fatigue, burnout, relationship distress, and depression are all potential factors contributing to psychological distress.
Other research has found stressors for vets also include managing adverse events, working in teams, giving bad news, interacting with difficult clients, balancing home/work life, and the strongest — dealing with ethical dilemmas. Additionally, working in an animal shelter, dealing with animal cruelty, dealing with the public, the intensity and frequency of euthanasia, conflict within the workplace, and the constant influx of animals, are also contributing factors to vet stress.
About Dr Nadine Hamilton
As a leading authority on veterinary wellbeing, Dr Hamilton helps veterinary professionals get on top of stress and conflict to avoid burnout and suicide, and also works with practice managers and owners to increase wellbeing, productivity, and retention in the workplace. Additionally, she provide workshops to small and large groups within the private and corporate sectors, and speaks at conferences and symposiums both nationally and internationally.
Her book "Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian - An Evidence-Based Solution to Increase Wellbeing" was released in March 2019 through Australian Academic Press, and is already making a positive impact within the profession - both here in Australia and internationally.
As an advocate for the veterinary profession, Dr Hamilton founded the charity "Love Your Pet Love Your Vet" and partnered with Royal Canin to reduce stigma in veterinary professionals seeking help, raising awareness within the community about the realities of working in the profession, and providing psychological and educational support to veterinary professionals.