This recent tragic case of a veterinary suicide highlights the intrinsic relationship that exists between veterinary and social science, that is, Veterinary Anthropology. A 31-year-old Taiwanese veterinarian and shelter manager, Jian Zhicheng injected herself with a veterinary euthanasia drug this month after she was publically criticised for euthanising over 700 homeless dogs in two years at her overcrowded animal shelter. This is another in a long list of tragic suicides seen in the veterinary profession about which several research papers have been published.
There are four key issues to consider in cases of suicide like this one:
- Work-related stress
- Cognitive dissonance
- Familiarity with death and dying
- Gender factors
Work Related Stress
Veterinarians work long hours often in isolation and lack social support. They can be criticised for their role in society and expected to solve unsolvable solutions, like what to do with overcrowded shelters filled with homeless dogs. Other stressors identified in this study were the poor work-life balance, difficult client relations, performing euthanasia, heavy workload, and managerial difficulties.
This review suggested that the cognitive dissonance or psychological discomfort surrounding a veterinarian’s desire to preserve life and euthanising animals may lower their own inhibitions towards suicide:
“The theory of cognitive dissonance (Harmon-Jones and Harmon-Jones 2007) – that psychological discomfort arising from conflicting thoughts or beliefs motivates the modification of existing, or the acquisition of new thoughts and beliefs to reduce the inconsistency and discomfort – may offer an explanation for any effect of euthanasia attitudes on suicide risk. Veterinary surgeons may experience uncomfortable tensions between their desire to preserve life and an inability to treat a case effectively, which could be ameliorated by modifying their attitudes to preserving life to perceive euthanasia as a positive outcome. This altered attitude to death may then facilitate self-justification and lower their inhibitions towards perceiving suicide as a solution to their own problems.”
Familiarity with Death and Dying
Several studies, including this one, have shown that the veterinarian’s role in killing animals, either via euthanasia or slaughter of food animals, increase their familiarity with death and reduced their fear of it, leading to increased suicide rates in the profession.
Another review study found:
“Attitudes to death and euthanasia Veterinary surgeons are often asked to end the lives of animals, either directly in the case of euthanasia, or indirectly in the case of involvement in the slaughter of meat-producing livestock. Familiarity with death and dying may affect attitudes in regard to the expendability of life: 93 per cent of veterinary healthcare workers interviewed in a small-scale study indicated a favourable inclination towards euthanasia of human beings (Kirwan 2005). This is a higher proportion than in the general population (Clery and others 2007) and contrasts with prevailing medical opinion (Seale 2009), although comparison of these studies is confounded by dissimilar research methods. Positive associations have been demonstrated between tolerance of suicide (more permissive attitudes towards euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide and unassisted suicide) and suicidal thoughts and behaviour (Neeleman and others 1997, Etzersdorfer and others 1998, Zemaitiene and Zaborskis 2005, Gibb and others 2006, Joe and others 2007).”
Gender in society, including veterinary society, is a complicated phenomenon. Female, particularly young female veterinarians are at a higher risk of suicide than their male counterparts and far greater than society averages. The largest source of stress is the conflict between their marital and family life, and their careers.
“Female veterinary students report higher levels of emotional empathy with animals (Paul and Podberscek 2000), greater concerns for the welfare or rights of animals (Serpell 2005) and attach greater importance to the human-animal bond (Martin and others 2003, Martin and Taunton 2005) than their male counterparts. This is reflected in differences between male and female veterinary surgeons’ reported emotional responses to treatment failure and carrying out euthanasia (Fogle and Abrahamson 1990), and in attitudes to pain control in animals (Capner and others 1999, Raekallio and others 2003, Hugonnard and others 2004). This may affect the ability of women to cope with the emotional stresses and moral conflicts inherent in veterinary practice (Paul and Podberscek 2000).”