Findings published in the Veterinary Record have drawn attention to the high suicide rate among members of the veterinary profession in the UK. Vets are nearly four times as likely to commit suicide as other members of the public, and twice as likely as doctors or dentists – lethal injections being the most common method of suicide.
Professor Richard Halliwell, a former president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, speaking about the possible reasons for suicide among vets, 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. You are dealing not only with life and death of animals, but you are 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 described being a vet as “extremely stressful”and also added that the training was demanding, but does not really prepare people for the communication neither it provides helping skills that vets need.
Various support groups also highlighted the lack of support for vets working in small, often isolated practices and they called for better training among veterinary students to cope with the pressures of the job.
Richard Mellanby, a veterinarian and researcher at Cambridge University, found that male vets in England and Wales had a suicide rate of 3.6 times the national average between 1979 and 1990, and 3.7 between 1991 and 2000. Similar data have not been analysed in Scotland, but the researchers expected a similar picture.
Mr Mellanby hopes that the results published in the Veterinary Record will act as a wake-up call for the profession to provide urgent help. He said: “It would be good if it led to an increased recognition of the problems within the profession and helped reduce the stigmatization of mental health problems and made it easier for people to get help. There also needs to be greater research so the profession can see what problems it needs to address.”
Austin Kirwin, chair of the Veterinary Help Line, which gives advice and support to as many as 200 vets a year, said problems ranged from financial hardship to family breakdowns, career issues, mental health problems and addictions. However, several factors distinguished vets from other professionals working in stressful environments, including their familiarity with the process of euthanasia and the means to commit suicide. “The stresses involved in working in an environment where you are dealing day-to-day with euthanasia and advising clients who are having their own animals put down are very great,” said Mr Kirwin. “It was found that veterinary surgeons are working within a culture of death. If an animal is in a hopeless situation, it is destroyed, so when a vet is depressed and feels their situation is hopeless, they are more likely to commit suicide. The culture shock of emerging from university and going to work in a small practice – unlike doctors who go to work within the NHS with thousands of others – exacerbated the problem. Vets usually find themselves working in a small practice, possibly on their own with one or two other support staff,” he added.
Dr Virginia Richmond of the Veterinary Surgeons Health Support Programme said that “there does not seem to be an awareness that there is help out there for vets.” She also said that there was a “stigma” attached to mental health issues. Consequently, vets mainly turned to alcohol and drugs, including injecting horse tranquiliser ketamine, which they have ready access to, sad Dr Richmond.
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) is considering setting up an advice and support system for trainees that would be used to help aspiring vets and warn them of the stress that they may face at practice. To improve the situation, vet schools need to teach more about work-life balance and coping skills from the beginning and support after graduation should also be offered.