A blue funk followed me into Monday morning after the pre-weekend release of a paper on the subject of suicide among veterinarians. The news wasn’t helped any by a series of rainy days here in South Miami.
Confirming the findings of previous U.K. research into high suicide rates among veterinarians, this new paper confirmed a two-fold increase in suicide when compared with human health care workers. Distinguishing itself from previous work, it delved deeper by attempting to determine the cause for the discrepancy.
So why exactly is it that U.K. veterinarians kill themselves at such alarming rates (six out of 16,000 a year)? And can the same figures be extrapolated to U.S. veterinarians, or might we be somewhat more immune to the lifestyle stressors and psychological makeup that seems to predispose us to suicidal behavior?
Though it doesn’t purport to address the U.S. vet issue, here’s what the paper proposes as an explanation for why U.K. veterinarians suffer increased suicidal tendencies:
- The stress begins while they're still in training. Typically, entrance to veterinary schools is limited to high achievers, whose personality traits may include neurosis, conscientiousness and perfectionism, all risk factors for suicidal behaviors.
- Their working environment can be stressful, marked by long hours, high psychological demands, low levels of support from managers and high expectations from clients. Many work in solo practices, which can leave them professionally and socially isolated and therefore more vulnerable to depression and suicide.
- Ready access to lethal means and knowledge of how to apply them can also put them at risk. Veterinary clinics typically store lethal drugs, such as barbiturates, on premises. Thoughts of suicide, which are often impulsive, can be acted on immediately. At least half of the male veterinarians who committed suicide between 1982 and 1996 in England and Wales used barbiturates, the report said, with deliberate poisoning accounting for 80 to 90 percent of veterinarians' suicides.
- Veterinarians may consider euthanasia to be a way of alleviating suffering and may therefore come to look upon it as a positive solution to their own difficulties.
- "Suicide contagion" caused by direct or indirect exposure to suicides among colleagues may leave veterinarians more vulnerable to killing themselves.
It remains to be seen whether U.S. vets will succumb to the same tune for the same reasons. But it’s a safe bet that, if nothing else, the veterinary profession needs to take steps to address the suicide triggers U.K. veterinarians are laboring under — especially since they unquestionably mirror our own.
Dr. Patty Khuly