Veterinarians and those who work in animal shelters report depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts as a result of their stressors associated with their jobs.
“People who work or volunteer with animals are often drawn to it because they see it as a personal calling,” said Angela K. Fournier, PhD, of Bemidji State University, who presented at the meeting.
“However, they are faced with animal suffering and death on a routine basis, which can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue and mental health issues.”
Veterinarians in particular are at high risk for death by suicide, according to a study from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which found that from 1979 to 2015, veterinarians died by suicide between two to 3.5 times more often than the general U.S. population.
“Talking about veterinarian suicide certainly gets people to pay attention, but it does not tell the whole, nuanced story about what may be contributing to poor well-being in this population,” said Katherine Goldberg, DVM, LMSW, community consultation and intervention specialist at Cornell Health and Founder of Whole Animal Veterinary Geriatrics and Palliative Care Services, who also presented at the meeting.
“More research is under way to help better understand why veterinarians might be at an increased risk, but a combination of personality traits, professional demands and the veterinary learning environment all likely contribute.”
Goldberg noted that vets also face economic challenges, as the average veterinary school graduate reported having more than $143,000 of school loan debt while earning a starting salary of just over an average of $73,000 annually in 2016.
“Personal finance concerns are stressful for many veterinarians, especially recent graduates, and at the same time, many clients regularly question the cost of care for their animals and may be suspicious that their vet is trying to ‘push’ services that their pet doesn’t need,” said Goldberg.
Goldberg described a multi-center study that looked at rates of adverse childhood experiences (a term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect and other traumatic experiences) in veterinary students, in an effort to understand what may be causing poor mental health among vets.
However, veterinarians were not, on entry to the profession, more predisposed to poor mental health than the general population as a result of adverse childhood experiences, she said.
“This indicates that something is happening over the course of veterinary student training or once veterinarians are working to cause poor well-being outcomes,” said Goldberg.
“Well-being education should be integrated into the veterinary curriculum, emphasizing resiliency behaviors and cultivating professional partnerships between veterinary medicine and mental health care.”
Substance use among veterinarians is also an understudied area.
Veterinary medicine is the only medical profession in the U.S. that does not have a national monitoring program for substance use and mental health issues, she said.
While veterinarians who are dealing with mental health issues may exhibit symptoms common to all populations, such as sadness that interferes with daily activities or changes in appetite, there are a few specific warning signs to watch for in a clinical veterinary setting, according to Goldberg.
“Increased medical errors, absenteeism, client complaints and spending too little or too much time at work,” are factors to watch for, she said.
“For potential substance use issues, warning signs could include missing drugs or missing prescription pads.”
Goldberg believes there needs to be a paradigm shift in veterinary training to better prepare veterinarians not only for the animal-related aspects of their jobs, but the human elements as well.
“We need core curricular material that focuses on coping with the emotional demands of the profession. Mindfulness, moral stress, ethics literacy, grief and bereavement, mental health first aid and suicide awareness all have a role in veterinary education” she said.
“Colleges of veterinary medicine that have embedded mental health professionals are a step ahead of those that do not, and I would like to see this become a requirement for all schools accredited by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.”
Fournier’s presentation looked at employees and volunteers in animal shelters or rescues, and animal welfare and animal rights activists, who are at risk for compassion fatigue and psychological distress.
“Animal welfare agents, as these people are often called, are exposed to animal abuse, neglect and oppression on a regular basis, as well as routine euthanasia that is common in these settings,” said Fournier.
Over 2.4 million healthy cats and dogs are euthanized each year in the U.S., most often homeless animals in shelters, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
“Shelter workers are then caught in a dilemma because they are charged with caring for an animal and they may ultimately end that animal’s life,” she said.
“Research suggests that this causes significant guilt, which can lead to depression, anxiety and insomnia, as well as greater family-work conflict and low job satisfaction.”
Animal welfare agents may also hear gruesome stories of animal abuse or witness the consequences firsthand when they are rehabilitating the animals, which can cause a lot of distress and lead to compassion fatigue, said Fournier.
“Experts suggest that animal welfare agents carry an even heavier burden than those in other helping professions who are susceptible to compassion fatigue because of the issues unique to working with animals, such as euthanasia and caring for living beings who have experienced pain and suffering but cannot articulate their needs and experiences,” said Fournier.
Fournier’s presentation looked at employees and volunteers in animal shelters or rescues, and animal welfare and animal rights activists, who are at risk for compassion fatigue and psychological distress. The image is in the public domain.
Fournier suggested that psychotherapists who work with animal welfare agents offer patients strategies to reframe negative experiences, identify ways in which they get fulfillment and gratification from the work they do, and establish healthy boundaries between their work and personal lives.
“There are certainly positive and negative aspects of the job and over time or during times of acute stress, it can be difficult to see the positive,” she said.
“It may be necessary to help someone focus on the big picture that overall they are making a difference and animals have been saved, rather than ruminating on individual stories of crisis and loss.
Self-care is also critical to ensuring the best mental health outcomes for those who work and volunteer with animals.”
Suicide and non-fatal suicidal behavior are major public health problems across the world: approximately 1 million people worldwide die by suicide each year. In fact, the number of lives lost through suicide exceeds the number of deaths due to homicide and war combined. Beyond the tragedy of life lost, there is the devastating human cost to family, friends, and colleagues, a cost carried forward with lasting impacts and lifelong repercussions. Suicide is injurious, both deeply and widely.
Several studies have identified a link between suicide and occupation (1), including the healthcare professions and our own profession.
The rate of suicide in the veterinary profession has been pegged as close to twice that of the dental profession, more than twice that of the medical profession (2), and 4 times the rate in the general population (3).
No matter where we live, what we do, and what our state of the world, we share the common experiences of joy and sadness, face strife and hardship, and struggle to meet life’s challenges. Sometimes “the stuff of life” can pile up, leaving us overwhelmed, depressed, and feeling alone. It can even push us over the edge to thoughts of suicide.
The 2012 CVMA National Survey Results on the Wellness of Veterinarians (n = 769) found that 19% of respondents had seriously thought about suicide and 9% previously attempted suicide (4).
Of those who had seriously thought about it (n = 135), 49% felt they were still at risk to repeat. The risk is real. The numbers are compelling.
As Halliwell and Hoskin (2) indicate, “We must develop a greater awareness within the veterinary profession of the issue of suicide, and of the predisposing signs and of the warning signs. There is ample evidence that bringing these issues out into the open, rather than bottling them up, is of great assistance in preventing suicides.”
Although the stigma associated with suicide has been an important barrier to discussing the issue (5), we need to open the dialogue in the hope that with increased awareness we can reduce the numbers — and stem the tragedy. It’s time we talk about it.
Separating the myths from the facts
Know the facts! They will help you recognize the warning signs, respond appropriately, and even save a life.
Myth #1: Talking about suicide may give someone the idea
Talking about suicide does notcreate or increase risk. The best way to identify the intention of suicide is to ask directly. When someone is given the opportunity to talk, the threat to carry through with suicide diminishes.
Myth #2: People who talk about suicide should not be taken seriously
Suicidal talk is a major warning sign for suicidal risk and should always be taken seriously. The myth suggests that suicidal talk is just attention-seeking behavior, while in truth it is an invitation to help the person to live. If help isn’t forthcoming, especially after they’ve made themselves vulnerable by having disclosed sensitive thoughts and feelings, they may feel it will never come. Without appropriate response, suicidal talk — which begins with suicidal thoughts — can escalate to suicidal acts.
Myth #3: Once someone has attempted suicide, they will not attempt again
People who have attempted suicide are the most at-risk for future attempts. The rate of suicide is 40 times higher for those who have already attempted. The foremost predictor of a future suicide is a past attempt.
Myth #4: Most suicides are caused by one sudden traumatic event
A sudden traumatic event may trigger the decision to take one’s life, but suicide is most often a result of events and feelings that have added up over a long period of time.
Myth #5: A suicidal person clearly wants to die
What a suicidal person most often wants is not to actually carry through with suicide, but to avoid life in its present form and find a way to handle the circumstances that are difficult and impossible to bear.
Myth #6: Suicide is generally carried out without warning
A person planning suicide usually gives clues about their intentions, although in some cases, intent may be carefully concealed.
Myth #7: Males have the highest rate of suicidal behavior in North America
Males die by suicide approximately 4 times more often than females, yet females attempt suicide approximately 4 times more often than males. Females, therefore, have the highest rate of suicidal behavior.
Myth #8: The risk of suicide is highest around Christmas
The rate of suicide is actually fairly constant throughout the year, with a slight rise in January, after the holidays, and peak in early spring. The holiday season can be a protective factor for those at risk. The “time of togetherness” can increase feelings of connectedness and the obligation to make it through the holidays in the interest of harmony.
Myth #9: Pet ownership reduces the risk of suicide
Anecdotally it may seem that pet ownership is protective, but research has not demonstrated an association between pet ownership and suicide. In fact, the loss of a beloved pet can be a risk factor for suicide.
Myth #10: Animals die by suicide
Although folklore includes tales of suicide among animals, modern naturalistic studies of thousands of animal species in field situations have not identified suicide in nonhuman species. Death by suicide is strictly a human phenomenon.
The risk factors
The widely acknowledged risk factors for suicide in the general population include personality factors, depression (as well as other forms of mental illness), alcohol and drug abuse, inherited factors, and environmental factors (including chronic major difficulties and undesirable life events) (6).
Although the specific factors contributing to the increased rate of suicide in the veterinary profession have not yet been determined (5), thanks to the recent work of Bartram and Baldwin (3), we have a starting point in better understanding the issue.
Bartram and Baldwin (3) designed a comprehensive hypothetical model to exemplify the risk, pointing to a confluence of interrelated and potentially compounding factors. According to Bartram and Baldwin (3,7), the following factors may contribute to the increased risk of suicide in our profession: personality factors, undergraduate training, professional isolation, work-related stressors, attitudes to death and euthanasia, access to and knowledge of means, psychiatric conditions, stigma around mental illness, and suicide contagion.
Veterinarians tend to be high achievers, and high achievers have tendencies to perfectionism, conscientiousness, and neuroticism, all of which can be risk factors for mental illness. Similarly, veterinarians with a preference for working with animals rather than people, may have a higher risk of depression as a result of relative social isolation.
Halliwell and Hoskin (2) suggest that the very high academic entry requirements into veterinary schools may be linked with increased vulnerability to suicide. However, others report a negative association between intelligence and suicide (8), making the association unclear, but worthy of consideration. It’s also been suggested that the highly demanding curriculum and pressures to succeed in veterinary school may preclude the expected growth of emotional intelligence and social skills in that critical juncture of life, limiting the development of coping skills and resilience.
Many veterinarians in private practice work in relative isolation where there is often little supervision and access to assistance from veterinary colleagues, an environment ripe with the potential for professional mistakes. The considerable emotional impact of such mistakes may contribute to the development of suicidal thoughts (9).
Inadequate professional support and professional mistakes, along with other work-related stressors such as long working hours; after hours on-call duties; conflictual relationships with peers, managers, and clients; high client expectations; unexpected clinical outcomes; emotional exhaustion (compassion fatigue); lack of resources; limited personal finances; concerns about maintaining skills; and the possibility of client complaints and litigation can all contribute to anxiety and depression, which increase vulnerability. Long-term exhaustion (burnout), characterized by disillusionment and demoralization, may also increase vulnerability.
Attitudes to death and euthanasia
Veterinarians in private practice are commonly required to engage in the active ending of life, with strong beliefs in quality of life and humane euthanasia to alleviate suffering. Likewise, those in food production are required to end the lives of animals via the slaughter of livestock. Active participation in the ending of animal life may alter views on death and the sanctity of human life, and in the face of life’s challenges, enable self-justification and reduce inhibitions towards suicide, making suicide seem a rational solution.
Access to and knowledge of means
Veterinarians have access to and knowledge of prescription medications (including drugs for anesthesia and euthanasia), increasing the potential for misuse. With ready access and knowledge, such substances could be used not only as a (maladaptive) means of coping, but also as a means to suicide, potentially being a key factor in the high rate of suicide in the profession (10)
Just as mental illnesses such as depression and substance misuse and dependence are associated with suicide in doctors (11), by extension, they may also be a factor in suicide by veterinarians. Two-thirds of people who die by suicide suffer from a depressive illness.
Stigma around mental illness
The stigma around mental illness is known to influence the accessing of mental health services. Such stigma may be particularly problematic for those working in professions in which their identity is firmly entrenched as “the helper.” The need for “helpers” to seek rather than offer help, especially as it relates to mental health, may be perceived as a sign of weakness, engendering feelings of guilt and shame as well as worry about career implications. Stigma is problematic, as it reduces help-seeking behavior, thereby enabling suicide planning.
The increased vulnerability to suicide as a result of direct or indirect exposure to the suicidal behavior of others, known as suicide contagion (12), may contribute to the increased risk in veterinarians. Awareness of a death by suicide can travel readily among members of a relatively small profession. This, along with the awareness of the risk in the profession as a whole, may increase risk.
Just as there are factors that contribute to the risk of suicide, there are factors that reduce the risk (13,14). Factors known to reduce the risk include having a caring family and good friends (i.e., a strong social network), pregnancy and motherhood (i.e., the maternal bond), and a stable home environment.
The willingness to seek help is also protective, giving those who recognize the need for and value of assistance the edge to build resilience. Likewise, proper interventions (diagnosis and treatment) are protective. In addition to these factors, a recent study investigating the protective factors against suicide in the veterinary profession identified the sense of responsibility to family and the belief in the necessity to cope with suicidal thoughts as protective (15)
Be aware of the warning signs! With awareness you can better know when to step forward to lend a hand — to support the health and wellbeing of a colleague, friend, or family member, and even save a life. The 3 cardinal warning signs are clinical depression, changes in behavior, and talk about suicide.
The rate of suicide for those with clinical depression is about 20 times greater than in the general population (16).
Clinical depression is not just feeling a little sad or “down-and-out” or having an “off” day or two. It is much more pervasive and manifests as a combination of symptoms so potent and wide-ranging that they can interfere with the ability to work, study, sleep, eat, and enjoy once pleasurable activities.
Symptoms include feelings of sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness; low energy; difficulty concentrating; irritability, anger, and hostility; loss of interest in usual activities; changes in appetite and sleep patterns; and thoughts of dying. The aspect of depression that appears to be most closely associated with suicide is the sense of hopelessness.
Changes in behavior, especially if out of character or questionable, are strongly associated with the risk of suicide.
Recklessness, such as over-drinking, speeding, and promiscuity, and withdrawal from usual enjoyed activities are 2 key behavioral changes to be aware of. Other changes include visiting or calling people (to say goodbye), giving away prized possessions, acquiring lethal means (e.g., purchasing a gun), and increasing the use of alcohol or drugs.
Even a positive change, such as a sudden turnaround in someone who has been depressed, can be a warning sign. Rather than signifying improvement, it can indicate acceptance of suicide as the answer and the plan to do the things they care about “one last time.”
The risk is overt if there is talk about suicide — of having no reason to live, being a burden to others, being in unbearable pain, and wanting to hurt or kill one’s self. The presence of a plan is especially of concern. The more specific, detailed, lethal, and feasible the plan, the greater the risk.
How to respond: Be there and care
What can you do to help a depressed or suicidal colleague? The motto to follow: be there and care. As uncomfortable as the situation may be for you, just imagine how it is for your colleague if they’re reaching the end of their rope. Remember, suicide is a permanent “solution” to a temporary problem. Suicidal impulses are often brief, at the point when the person feels hopeless. The situation can and will change. Remember too that suicide is not an individual, but a community issue. Humans are social beings who thrive — and survive — within community. Here’s how you can be there and care:
- Approach the person.
- Ask how they are feeling.
- Listen with care and concern.
- Ask if they have suicidal thoughts.
- If they do, find a crisis hotline and stay by their side as they make the call.
- If they do but refuse to call, call a crisis hotline yourself for guidance. It is imperative to access professional support, direction, and services as needed.
- Assure them that things can and will change.
- Stay with them, and recruit the company of trusted others (as warranted), until you know the person is safe with the necessary supports in place.
- When it is safe to leave, make specific plans to see them the next day so they have a reason to hang on for one more day.
The first step may be the hardest, but it’s the right thing to do. Despite your every effort, however, remember that you cannot take responsibility for someone else’s life — the decision is ultimately their own. You may, however, be able to help them find hope and see other ways of dealing with their problems and pain, and help them seek the support they need. Professional assistance can make all the difference.
Jim Sliwa – APA
The image is in the public domain.
Original Research: Open access
“Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015”. Suzanne E. Tomasi DVM, MPH; Ethan D. Fechter-Leggett DVM, MPVM; Nicole T. Edwards MS; Anna D. Reddish DVM; Alex E. Crosby MD, MPH; Randall J. Nett MD, MPH.
Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. doi:10.2460/javma.254.1.104
The study will be presented at 2019 American Psychological Association Convention in Chicago.
Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015
OBJECTIVE To assess proportionate mortality ratios (PMRs) for suicide among male and female US veterinarians from 1979 through 2015.
DESIGN PMR study.
SAMPLE Death records for 11,620 veterinarians.
PROCEDURES Information for veterinarians who died during 1979 through 2015 was obtained from AVMA obituary and life insurance databases and submitted to a centralized database of US death records to obtain underlying causes of death. Decedent data that met records-matching criteria were imported into a software program for calculation of PMRs for suicide stratified by sex and indirectly standardized for age, race, and 5-year calendar period with 95% confidence intervals.
RESULTS 398 deaths resulted from suicide; 326 (82%) decedents were male, 72 (18%) were female, and most (298 [75%]) were ≤ 65 years of age. The PMRs for suicide for all veterinarian decedents (2.1 and 3.5 for males and females, respectively), those in clinical positions (2.2 and 3.4 for males and females, respectively), and those in nonclinical positions (1.8 and 5.0 for males and females, respectively) were significantly higher than for the general US population. Among female veterinarians, the percentage of deaths by suicide was stable from 2000 until the end of the study, but the number of such deaths subjectively increased with each 5-year period.
CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE Results of the study indicated that PMRs for suicide of female as well as male veterinarians were higher than for the general population. These data may help to inform stakeholders in the creation and implementation of suicide prevention strategies designed for veterinarians.