Why Is the Suicide Rate Among Veterinarians So High?

We spoke to veterinarian mental health charity Vetlife to find out.
March 15, 2017, 11:53am

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

In 1979 and 1980, and again from 1982 to 1983, the occupation in the UK with the highest rate of suicide was that of the veterinarian. This was true for both men and women. In a more recent study, conducted from 2001 to 2005, this had changed: Vet dropped out of the top 30 for men but remained third for women, behind "sports players" and "artist."

The high rate of suicide among Britain's vets is rarely talked about, and when it is discussed, it's shrouded in presumption. The immediate assumption is that it must have something to do with the emotional stress of euthanizing animals. While this is one piece of the puzzle, it doesn't paint a wholly accurate picture.

Vetlife is a charity that aims to help vets in moments of crisis. It was formed a century ago under a different name, the Veterinary Benevolence Society, and in the 1980s opened a helpline that it operates to this day, 24/7. Dr. Rosie Allister is the manager of the Vetlife helpline. She's also a researcher at the University of Edinburgh and a vet herself. "We got about 1,285 contacts last year," she tells me, "so it is a well-used service."

In 2014, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons released its annual Facts paper, in which it documented the fact there are about 19,500 active vets in the UK. Compared to the country's 250,000 doctors, that doesn't seem like a lot. This also means that, when it comes to national statistics on suicide in certain professions, it doesn't match up to others.

"As a profession in the UK, we're slightly too small to make a lot of the way that you calculate [the numbers]," says Dr. Allister, "because most people measure it with a standardized ratio. It's what we call a denominator issue, which—to cut a rather complicated story short—just means there aren't enough vets for the suicide numbers to be high enough to calculate using an SMR [standardized mortality ratio], so we tend to use a different measure."

When it comes to mental health and suicide, it's irresponsible, misguided, and near-enough impossible to try singling out individual reasons. But looking at the wider picture here, we have to start with the perceived toll of euthanizing beloved pets.

"We see euthanasia as relieving suffering, as a solution sometimes to intractable problems."

"Euthanizing animals is part of our work and always will be," says Dr. Allister. "There have been a couple of studies to do with this, and the idea that has been talked about is that we see euthanasia sometimes as a positive thing. We see euthanasia as relieving suffering, as a solution, sometimes, to intractable problems. So if an animal is really suffering, we can help that animal by alleviating its suffering. And the argument was that—to vets—death is then normalized as a solution to problems.

"Some have suggested that, yes, it might contribute, and some have suggested that, no, it doesn't contribute. I would say the evidence on this is not conclusive at all about the types of effects that happen there. What we do know, in qualitative research—so when you talk to vets who have experience of suicidal behavior—they will often compare themselves to animals. They say things like, 'If I was a dog, I would've considered euthanasia,' when they're talking about their own mental health issues."

As Dr. Allister says, the typical answer isn't conclusive and doesn't paint a detailed enough picture. So what other factors are driving vets to depression and suicide? One thing that seems to crop up regularly in Dr. Allister's work with Vetlife is the issue of financial pressure.

"There's a public perception that veterinary fees are expensive and being a veterinarian must be a very well-paid profession," she says. "Although it's a good salary compared to the national UK average, if you're graduating and you've done a veterinary degree where you've paid fees of over £20,000 [$24,300] for four or five years, you're graduating with at least £100,000 [$122,000] of debt—sometimes more if you're doing veterinary medicine as a second degree. Then it's very difficult to pay back on a salary. I think the mean salary of the veterinary career is around £31,000 [$38,000], which, compared to a doctor, is very different. Sometimes there's an expectation that you should be able to provide veterinary care for free because you love animals or because you care about them."

In rural areas, vets must be on call all day, every day, and work extremely unpredictable hours. It's a lifestyle that doesn't foster much allowance for a healthy work-life balance, a venture in medical virtuosity that ends up eating away at your time, money, emotional state, and, in some cases, family life. This stress can sometimes cause vets to think they're underperforming, or somewhat unfit to practice medicine on animals, and in some cases can lead to investigation. As Allister says, "When your whole identity is around your work, trying to do something good, and often making really big sacrifices to do that, it can be then be really difficult when that identity is challenged and you feel it's going to be taken away, even if that perception isn't grounded in fact."

Lead photo by Staff Sergeant Stephanie Rub via Wikimedia

If you are affected by any of the themes in this article, please do not hesitate to contact the American Veterinary Medical Association.

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