The suicide rate among vets is nearly four times the national average and double that of doctors or dentists, according to new research.
Findings published in the British Veterinary Association’s (BVA) journal suggested lethal injections were the most common method of suicide.
Professor Richard Halliwell, of the BVA, said the suicides could be related to the stress of putting down animals.
The BVA is considering setting up an advice and support system for trainees.
The approach would be used to help aspiring vets and warn them of the stress they may face while at work.
Speaking about the possible reasons for suicide among vets, Professor Halliwell told the BBC’s Farming Today: “When they are suffering themselves from emotional problems due to the stress, they may more readily decide to take their own life because they are used to euthanising animals who are suffering.”
He described being a vet as “extremely stressful”.
“You’re dealing not only with life and death of animals, but you’re dealing with people who either have significant commercial or financial involvement with those animals or, alternatively, are very emotionally attached to them.
“So you have a dual problem of coping with the animals and coping with the people, which can be very stressful.”
He also said that the training was demanding, and “doesn’t really prepare people for the communication and helping skills that they need”.
Prof Halliwell, a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, said support after graduation was also lacking.
He said that, to improve the situation, vet schools needed to teach more about work-life balance and coping skills from the beginning and that support after graduation should be offered.
Dr Virginia Richmond of the Veterinary Surgeons Health Support Programme said vets of varying ages were asking for help.
“We’re getting calls from vets who are feeling isolated, they don’t feel supported, there seems to be a lot of stress involved in the work that they are doing.
“They don’t know where they can go to with these problems they have.
“There doesn’t seem to be an awareness that there is help out there for them.”
She also said that there was a “stigma” attached to mental health issues.
To cope with the stresses, Dr Richmond said vets mainly turned to alcohol and drugs – including injecting horse tranquiliser ketamine, which they have ready access to.
“That’s part of the problem – they are not having to go out and find it in any devious or dishonest way.
“It’s sitting there on the shelves looking at them.”
What’s your reaction to the BVA’s findings? Are you surprised that the suicide rate amongst vets is so high?
Vets like nurses, doctors carers have no access to emotional support nor do they have counselling training in order to help those affected by the death of loved ones. No wonder they are suicidally depressed.
Michael Taylor, Peterborough UK
We have an excellent and balanced, husband and wife, vet team here in this sheep farming upland area. However I noted that UK vets over the past 20 years made no comment about their farming customers suffering from sheep-dip poisoning.
Dr Lewis Moncrieff, Alston, Cumbria
Surely the fact that vets have a higher suicide rate than anyone else is because they have the means (lethal injections) ready to hand. How about running a clinical trial to make lethal injections available to a cross-section of other professions (tax-collectors and lawyers especially)? I bet the suicide rate would go up across the board.
Howard Almond, Dawlish, Devon
I visited our local surgery the other day and a lady came running out of the consulting room after leaving her dog there, it was obvious from her tears that the dog had been left for despatch, she was devastated, what about the poor vet who had the job of putting the dog down? I felt for them as well, they do wonderful work and should get all the support they need.
Maria Adlam, Suffolk
Vets are vets because they care. They get to know owners and their pets over many years and try to keep the pet healthy for as long as possible. To have the power to “do the best thing” must be the worst dichotomy. You know the owner will in most cases be very upset, yet for the sake of the animal you have to end its life. The mechanics of that may be simple but the emotional impact has to be soaked up somewhere, so it is hardly surprising it overflows into tragedy for too many vets.
Susan Fleming, Basingstoke, UK
This is no surprise. A very close friend of mine graduated from vet school and went straight into a job where she was expected to work 7 days a week including nights as she was a newly qualified, she became exhausted and depressed and was offered no support. She was an excellent vet who had always wanted to be a vet and after a year of working under these conditions she has left the vetinary profession as she was struggling to cope – what a waste.
Jo Gray, Warwickshire
I am surprised, as a second year vet undergraduate, so far veterinary doesn’t seem like a depressing job. We go into the job wanting to help animals, and are too aware that putting down animals is part of the job. The case where i could see a window for vets becoming depressed with their job, however, is vets who were involved in the foot and mouth outbreak; knowingly putting down hundreds to thousands of healthy animals and the horrific way that it was handled. Vets have access to the drugs very readily, even more so than doctors, so maybe that’s why the vet rate is higher than that of doctors??
Gina Harrison, Cambridge, UK
I’m both surprised and saddened to know the suicide rate is so high amongst vets. Having had animals all my life I’ve had regular contact with many vets life and always admired the dedication and empathy they are able to show both pet and owner. I’d be interested to know if this is a growing trend. Maybe, like lots of us, vets are under increasing commercial and financial pressure these days. Whatever it is, we need to identify it and reverse the trend because the job vets do is such a valuable one in so many ways.