Profile of tragedy: Veterinarians and Suicide
Consider what professions have a well-above average suicide rate and you are unlikely to include veterinarians. However, individuals who care for our pets and farm animals are significantly more likely to take their lives than members of other professions and occupations.
A 2014 study by the Centers for Disease Control of 10,000 practicing veterinarians found that 14.4 percent of males and 19.1 percent of females had considered suicide since graduation — figures three times the U.S. national average.
A CDC study released in December 2018 examined 36 years of suicides by veterinarians (1979-2015) finding that male veterinarians were 2.1 times more likely to die by their own hand than males in the general public and female veterinarians were 3.5 times more likely to take their lives than females in the overall population.
These findings are of interest and concern for at least two reasons. First, whereas males in the general population are 3.5 times more likely to commit suicide than females, among veterinarians, females are significantly more apt to commit suicide than their male colleagues.
Second, while veterinary medicine has traditionally been a male dominated profession, today more than 60 percent of veterinarians are females and 80 percent of students studying veterinary medicine are women. If gender suicide trends continue, an increasing number of female veterinarians will take their lives.
Cross-cultural research clearly indicates that a high veterinarian suicide rate is not uniquely an American phenomenon. High suicide rates in this profession have been recorded in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway and the United Kingdom. Two studies by the British Veterinarian Association found that veterinarians had a suicide rate twice that of other health care professionals and about four times higher than the general population.
The following is a list of the most prevalent explanations for the disproportionately high rate of veterinarian suicides:
Debt, earnings and stress – Veterinarian education is expensive. The American Veterinary Medical Association states the average veterinary student now graduates $167,000 in debt – a debt-to-income ratio double that of medical doctors. About 1 in 5 individuals leaving veterinary school will have over $200,000 in debt to pay off and some graduates have upwards of $300,000 in student loans. Veterinary salaries start at about $65,000 (with some as low as $40,000), considerably less than medical doctors and dentists.
Paying off student debt while attempting to buy homes, start families or run their own practices, many veterinarians routinely work 50 or more hours a week often picking up a second job, some taking on overnight shifts at emergency clinics or helping at rescue shelters. Working extended hours week after week is stressful and tiring and means less time (and energy) spent with family and fulfilling family-related responsibilities, which only compounds the stress.
Animal undertakers — Veterinarians are routinely asked to euthanize their patients and may have to put aside their professional advice and accept a pet owner’s decision to put an animal down. A Canadian veterinarian stated that it’s not “the euthanasia itself that is difficult, but the intense discussions and deliberations that go along with it.” She noted that her profession requires significant “emotional labor…the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfill the emotional requirements of the job.” This emotional labor “is typically much more demanding than the physical and intellectual labors of the work we do as veterinary care providers.” Perfectionism — In the CDC study of veterinarian suicides from 1979 to 2015, lead researcher Suzanne Thomas states that a key personality trait admissions boards at schools of veterinary medicine select for is perfectionism to meet the “rigorous requirements” needed to complete the course of study. However, perfectionism has been associated with an increased risk for developing psychological distress, including anxiety and depression. “Veterinarians with certain psychological traits who are exposed to unmanaged occupational stressors might be at risk for developing serious psychological distress, depression and suicidal ideations.”
Malcontent pet owners — One veterinarian noted that “People are incredibly sensitive about their animals, and they are incredibly sensitive about their finances, and you’re mixing the two…” In a country wherein so many individuals have poor health coverage or no coverage at all, few people have pet care insurance. Faced with a vet bill for services they can’t afford some individuals lash out at veterinarians, stating as one practitioner noted: “You let my dog die because all you care about is money.”
In the Internet age of Facebook and blogs, veterinarians too often find themselves targets of ugly accusations and hate campaigns. In 2013 a good Samaritan in New York City brought a stray cat found in a local park to Shirley Koshi, the solo practitioner at Gentle Hands Veterinarian. A few weeks later a woman appeared at the clinic and said the cat (she called Karl) was one of several cats she owned and “kept” at the park. Without proof of ownership Koshi refused to relinquish the cat. The outraged woman filed a lawsuit against Koshi and organized demonstrations outside the veterinarian’s office. Protestors and their supporters took to Facebook targeting Koshi, describing her as a “crazy bitch … who should be locked up in a mental institution” with many of the hateful posts obscenity-laced, Koshi’s veterinary practice began to decline. Increasingly distraught about the entire affair, she committed suicide in May, 2014.
The American Veterinary Medical Association stated that cyber-bullying has “become a real cause for concern among veterinarians” with a 2014 survey finding that approximately 1 in 5 veterinarians had been victims of such attacks or knew colleagues who had been victimized online. In 2015 the American Veterinary Medical Foundation canceled the annual “America’s Favorite Veterinarian Contest” following “vicious cyber-bullying attacks” that disrupted and contaminated the selection process.
Ending suffering with killing drugs — A veterinarian who contemplated taking her life, sitting for hours with a syringe containing a powerful horse tranquilizer that would have killed her, stated: “As veterinarians we view death as the end of pain. That’s what we’re taught — when the pain is too bad, euthanasia is the one thing left we can do. So when we’re in that much psychological pain we’re going to look at it that way.”
Veterinarians, as do members of the general population, typically use firearms to end their lives. However, 37 percent of veterinarian suicides are the result of pharmaceutical poisoning, a figure 2.5 times higher than pharmaceutical related suicides in the general population. Almost two of three female suicides in the veterinary profession use these drugs to end their lives. Just like a nearby loaded gun, an easily accessible loaded syringe can turn a suicidal impulse – that might have passed if the mechanism of self destruction was not readily available – into a tragedy.
Individually the above factors do not adequately account for high rates of veterinarian suicides. However, collectively they provide a highly plausible explanation for why so many individuals in the animal health care profession tragically take their own lives.
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