Despite attempts by veterinary associations, veterinary support groups and social services to address the 2-4 times higher rate of suicide amongst veterinarians, the tragedy continues.
In December 2018, the CDC published a study showing that American female veterinarians committed suicide at a rate 3.5 times that of the general population, whereas male veterinarians are 2.1 times more likely to end their lives. A recent article in the Washington Post links mounting debt, compassion fatigue and social media attacks by pet owners as causal factors.
Debt is particular to the USA where privatised higher education leads to veterinarians graduating with an average debt of $143,000, with some as high as $260,000. The American Veterinary Medical Association emphasised that veterinary student debt is part of a larger and more complicated societal issue in the USA where total student loan debt exceeded $1.5 trillion in 2018. This article by the Washington Post describes Robin Stamey’s recent brush with suicide and what led her to make such a drastic choice.
Social media abuse from pet owners is commonly listed amongst the causal factors associated with veterinary stress and suicide. This is a fairly recent social trend and is not confined to the veterinary profession. While there has been much research on cybervictimization in other demographics, no dedicated research has been published on the effect it has on veterinarians and suicide rates.
Elsewhere, in Australia the suicide rate amongst veterinarians is four times the national average. Stress and poor salaries are cited as reasons why veterinarians are leaving the profession leading to a shortage of veterinarians in Australia. The suicide rate is similar in the United Kingdom. Despite the fact that Australian and British vets do not graduate with such crippling debt as their American colleagues, due to Australia and the UK providing subsidised higher education, low salaries and the high cost of providing modern small animal veterinary care contribute to financial stress.
Despite this global phenomena, there are moves by the profession and the veterinary community to tackle this crisis. Love your pet, Love your vet was founded to raise awareness of the high rate of burnout and suicide amongst veterinarians. The founder, a psychologist Dr Nadine Hamilton recently released a book: “Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian” aimed at helping vets, students and vet nurses understand the issue and provide strategies to help them cope.
Not One More Vet is an online veterinary support group which has grown into an international community of veterinarians who use social media groups like facebook to provide real time communication and support for veterinarians struggling with their jobs and mental health.
The British Veterinary Association supports several wellbeing initiatives such as VetLife, a free, confidential phone and email help line. They also provide support for new graduates through the Young Vet Network.
The American Veterinary Medical Association has a similar wellbeing and peer assistance program for North American vets.
The phenomena of veterinary profession related stress and suicide is not new, however recent social science research into the crisis is prompting action from associations and social groups. The profession is transforming towards a more feminised cohort who increasingly work in privatised, urban, small animal clinics with high economic stressors. This shift in socio-economic and cultural factors has changed the way in which veterinarians work, no longer a James Herriot type of villagepractice specialising in large animals.
Social media can help (online veterinary support networks) or hinder (cybervictimization) veterinary mental health. The recent explosion of social media usage has outstripped our understanding of the social and mental health effects it is having, and this includes within the veterinary profession. More research is needed in general, and in the veterinary profession specifically, on this complicated problem.