Suicide Awareness In The Veterinary Profession

**This blog post originally posted in 2018. NPR recently aired a story focusing on this topic within the veterinary community- you can read and listen to it here.**

SUICIDE

This is a subject that is, unfortunately, not a stranger to the field of veterinary medicine. With the increasing emphasis on mental wellbeing, we are now becoming more aware of the devastating effects of mental illness.

Here are some sobering statistics regarding veterinarians and suicide:

  • In a study conducted by the CDC, male veterinarians were 2.1 times more likely to die from suicide compared to the general population. This number jumps up to 3.5 times for female veterinarians.
  • In this same study, poisoning was used in 32% of the cases in males, 64% of the cases in females.
  • A survey conducted by the CDC showed that the rate of suicidal thoughts is 3 times that of the general population (14% male vets and 19% female vets).
  • Put another way, 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide.
  • This same survey found that depressive episodes were 1.5 times that of the general population.
  • A British study showed that vets in the UK have a suicide rate 4 times that of the general population. There have been other studies in countries outside the US that show similar results.
  • The veterinary suicide rate was listed as one of the top concerns in the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study.

WHY IS THE RATE SO HIGH AMONG VETERINARIANS?

What is the image you see when you think of a veterinarian? A smiling person in a white coat holding an adorable puppy or kitten? Or perhaps this person is listening intently with a stethoscope as their patient wags its tail. Maybe it’s the large animal vet in their truck, making their rounds in a rural setting as the only vet available for miles and miles.

Rarely does one imagine a veterinarian who is dying on the inside as their world seemingly crumbles around them.

Dealing with sick animals is not easy. Dealing with euthanasias on a regular basis is not easy. Dealing with compassion fatigue is not easy. Dealing with owners that have very high expectations with limited financial resources is not easy.

The empathy and compassion that is required of a veterinarian are the very same traits that can lead someone to eventually break down.

This AVMA article outlines the possible reasons behind the high suicide rate in the veterinary profession. Here is the copied text:

  • Demands of practice such as long work hours and work overload.
  • Practice management responsibilities.
  • Client expectations and complaints.
  • Knowledge of euthanasia procedures and training to view euthanasia as a normal and acceptable method to relieve suffering
  • Ever-increasing educational debt-to-income ratio.
  • Poor work-life balance
  • Access to controlled substances such as euthanasia solution and the pharmacological training to calculate a lethal dose.

WHY TALK ABOUT SUICIDE?

If you’re not aware, September is Suicide Awareness Month.

I have personally known people that have committed suicide. I have friends  whose lives have been forever altered because of suicide.

There are many celebrities that have lost their lives in this way; they remind us that outward success, including great financial success, does not shield one from suicidal thoughts and actions.

Lastly, we can’t forget the reports of our own colleagues that decide to take their own lives.

It is incredibly heartbreaking.

I, like so many others, have experienced some form of the blues. Not major depressive episodes, which are categorized as having specific clinical signs for at least 2 weeks. But there have definitely been moments where I’ve had feelings of despair. Worthlessness. That feeling of heaviness that would envelop my entire body, like a fog that cannot be lifted. The inability to find much joy in life, even when I had so much to be thankful for. The anger I directed towards myself for even feeling this way.

Outwardly, I would still function normally. It was still possible to go through the daily motions of life, to continue to smile and act as though everything was fine. But my mind was definitely in a different, darker space. It’s a space that likes to just sit there, in no rush to leave.

I would somehow muddle through, and eventually, the mood would lift and I would be back to “normal,” whatever that means. I am thankful that these episodes did not last for an extended period of time.

So I have a tiny inkling of what a major depressive episode feels like. It’s like standing near the edge of the pit of despair. It is frightening. I cannot imagine feeling that way for weeks on end, at a level that is much more intense than what I’ve experienced. The thought of actually falling into that pit is absolutely terrifying. And I imagine that’s where many of those we have lost to suicide found themselves.

WHAT DO FINANCES HAVE TO DO WITH THIS?

I’m a firm believer that there is a link between financial insecurity and general wellness. Veterinarians are more likely to be financially insecure due to the large amount of debt coming out of school. Thus, they are starting their careers in a very tenuous situation. Without any further guidance or financial education, this situation can quickly worsen.

The top four concerns among the participants in the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study were as follows: high student debt levels, stress levels of veterinarians, suicide rate among veterinarians, and the ability to retire comfortably. Two of those four are directly related to financial issues. The remaining two have the potential to be indirectly affected by finances.

This study found that having student debt was correlated with having a lower wellbeing score. Surprisingly, the amount of debt did not matter as much as simply having the debt.

Even if one manages to graduate with no debt, there are a plethora of life events that can lead to financial insecurity: marriage/divorce, health problems, job loss, disability, having children, purchases that cannot be afforded, etc. Every single one of these life events will also have an impact on one’s emotional wellbeing, for better or for worse.

It is my hope that, at the very least, we can decrease the debt to income ratio and relieve some of this financial burden that faces many of our current and future veterinarians. Anything that will improve veterinary wellness would surely have an impact on the suicide rate.

WHERE TO GO FROM HERE

Here are a list of resources that are available. Whether it’s for yourself or someone you know, please know that these resources exist. If you are aware of any other resources, please comment below!

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Call 1-800-273-8255

Crisis Text Line — Text HOME to 741741

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Project Semicolon

CNQR

Open Path Collective — affordable therapy. You can also check your local college to see if their graduate program in counseling offers discounted sessions.

Debtors Anonymous

The following resources are provided via veterinary organizations. Please add more in the comments if I have not included them.

AVMA- Get Help

Vets4Vets– through the VIN Foundation

Not One More Vet (NOMV)

I challenge you to reach out to one person this week that you haven’t reached out to in a while. Check in on them and let them know that you care. If you are in need of help, I implore you to utilize any/all of the resources that are available.

9 Comments

  1. xrayvsn on September 12, 2018 at 1:21 pm

    Great resources listed DVM. Suicide also strikes a lot of physicians and burnout/depression highlight the main culprits. It is sad that it gets to a point where someone who has dedicated their lives to saving others takes their own.

    • Financial Wellness DVM on September 12, 2018 at 1:59 pm

      It is truly tragic. I know that physician suicide rates are high as well. It’s a cruel irony that those who are supposed to care for the health of others often cannot care for themselves.

  2. jiabwass on September 14, 2018 at 11:25 am

    My godfather and my good friend’s son committed suicide a few years ago so this issue is very close to me. Thank you for writing about this issue no matter how unpleasant it is.

    • Financial Wellness DVM on September 14, 2018 at 12:46 pm

      I’m so sorry. I recently participated in a walk hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and it was heartbreaking to see teams with matching t-shirts, the pictures of their loved ones on the shirts. I’m so glad that there are opportunities like this to increase awareness.

  3. minimalmd on September 20, 2018 at 6:15 pm

    Thank you for this post. The more we talk about these issues, the better.

    • Financial Wellness DVM on September 20, 2018 at 11:12 pm

      I agree. Too much pain and hurt when dealing with these issues behind closed doors.

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  5. Chris on September 29, 2018 at 4:55 pm

    When I was practicing as an ER veterinarian I had a patient come in with a GDV. The owner was not able to pay for surgery, but left the patient with the intent of returning with payment for surgery. He informed that that he would ‘kill himself’ if he could not fix his ‘best friend’. As sometimes happens, there was no return of the owner. The patient died. When I called the owner at the number left, the person answering informed me the owner committed suicide in the hours between dropping the patient off and my call. To this day I am not sure if this really happened… But what an awful feeling to think that I am responsible for someone taking their own life because finances came between their companion living and dying. Suicide may not just be a problem within our profession, but is perhaps a problem within our pet-loving community that we work so hard to support!
    Interested to hear if others have heard clients expressing intent to end their own lives upon loosing their companion, and whether or not anything became of the ‘threats of suicide’.

    • Financial Wellness DVM on September 30, 2018 at 4:41 pm

      What a tragic story. And never should you feel responsible for their actions- ultimately, it was their choice. I have not personally had a client either threaten to or commit suicide, but I know others have found themselves in this situation. It is the reality of being in a profession that gives you a front row seat to a lot of strong emotions. No wonder there’s a lot of burnout. We’re just doing the best we can under less than ideal circumstances. And unfortunately, finances play a large part in our everyday interactions with clients. Again, I am so sorry that you have had to deal with this.

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