(Top photo: by Staff Sgt. Stephanie Rubi, via)
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 euthanising animals. And 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 which it operates to this day, 24/7. Dr Rosie Allister is the manager of the Vetlife helpline, as well as being 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 their annual Facts paper, in which they documented the fact there are just over 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 standardised 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 [standardised 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 euthanising beloved pets.
"We see euthanasia as relieving suffering, as a solution sometimes to intractable problems."
"Euthanising 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 normalised 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 that, in qualitative research – so when you talk to vets who have experience of suicidal behaviour – 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 for four or five years, you're graduating with at least £100,000 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, 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 Rosie 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."
Grouping together the harsh emotional stress, the financial burden, the odd working hours and, potentially, the normalisation of euthanasia, a picture starts to come together. Vetlife provides financial relief in some cases to alleviate some of the money stresses that vets face, and their helpline provides a place where struggling vets can talk to someone who understands.
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