Veterinarians in the U.S. are at an increased risk of suicide, a trend that has spanned more than three decades, according to a study recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The study is the first to show increased suicide mortality among female veterinarians. Female veterinarians were 3.5 times more as likely, and male veterinarians were 2.1 times more likely, to die from suicide as the general population. Seventy-five percent of the veterinarians who died by suicide worked in a small animal practice.
“Our findings suggest mortality from suicide among veterinarians has been high for some time — spanning the entire 36-year period we studied,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said. “This study shines a light on a complex issue in this profession. Using this knowledge, we can work together to reduce the number of suicides among veterinarians.”
Veterinarian at Aledo Animal Hospital Dr. Jeff Harrison shared his opinions on some contributing factors of the study, which includes low wage for level of education, perfectionism, human psychology, stressful and unpredictable schedules, lack of appreciation and the emotional rollercoaster veterinary medicine can be.
“Veterinarian daily hear, ‘You should do this for free. Don’t you love animals?’ The anxiety of this question is that we do love animals and would love to perform services for free. However, we have to maintain quality equipment and pay staff [with dependents] in order to continue to provide veterinary services for our community,” Harrison said. “Veterinary medicine is an emotional rollercoaster. At any given time a veterinarian can have a scheduled ‘new puppy exam’ while tragically need to treat an emergency involving a dog that has been hit by a car, or palliative care for a dog that is suffering with cancer. We share the joy the family has with the new puppy, then quickly share the suffering of a family experiencing a loss.”
Harrison said in veterinary medicine they do pediatrics to hospice, general practice to emergency, surgery to internal medicine and many other things in between.
The American Veterinary Medical Association is working closely with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other suicidology experts to improve the health and welfare of veterinarians.
“Most veterinarians are perfectionists or they would not have completed veterinary school. Perfectionism is a trait that has some benefits; however, we deal with biology, which is not perfect. We are our own worst critics and tend to internalize things negatively when we do not have 100 percent favorable outcomes, which unfortunately is not possible,” Harrison said. “Low wages for level of education is especially true for new graduates who struggle with enormous educational debt from eight to 10 years of college and minimal income. The only way to overcome this debt is to own a practice, yet they can not borrow money to buy a practice due to their debt. This is a conundrum for which there is no solution at this time.”
Harrison said other challenges include time-consuming medical records, lack of compliance and seeing death almost every day.
“We see death almost daily. Every single time it is stressful and unpleasant. It never gets easier. One the contrary, it gets harder,” he said. “In addition, we live in a world in which euthanasia is a tool to relieve suffering.”
But despite the hardships, Harrison said veterinary medicine is a true calling from God that few people are able to answer.
“I feel like being a veterinarian is the greatest profession on the planet,” he said. “We get to help animals that are otherwise helpless and in doing so we help the people they belong to. Like any job, veterinary medicine is more stressful than most realize, but the reward is far greater than anything money can buy.”
For the study, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health looked at records from 11,620 veterinarians who died during the years 1979-2015.
“Too many of our colleagues have either contemplated, attempted or died by suicide,” AVMA President John de Jong said. “And, one suicide is clearly too many. Working with our colleagues throughout the veterinary community will help us find solutions more quickly. This issue is affecting not only our profession, but society as a whole, in numbers greater than ever before.”
For more information visit www.cdc.gov.
Weatherford Democrat reporter Autumn Owens contributed to this report.