Why veterinarians are at high risk of suicide: 'It's not just playing with puppies and kittens'

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Veterinarians, because of a multitude of work stressors, are up to 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. (Photo: Getty Images)

Being a veterinarian is the stuff of childhood fantasies, right? It may be for some, but there’s a dark side to the profession, too: disproportionately high rates of suicide, depression and work-related burnout. And that’s something worth talking about during Mental Health Awareness Month, considering how much anyone with a beloved pet relies on their vet.

“I think there’s still this perception that, for people who love animals and become vets, it's like, wow, that must be your dream job, you love animals and you get to work with them,” Nadine Hamilton, an Australia-based psychologist who specializes in the wellbeing of veterinarians through research and a virtual practice, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “But it’s not just playing with puppies and kittens all day.” Her new book, Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian, gets into the nitty-gritty of the profession’s risks, and offers guidance for vets who may be having a hard time.

According to a large study looking at three decades worth of data and published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association earlier this year, veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population — 2.1 times more likely for male veterinarians and 3.5 times more likely for their female counterparts.

The findings only bolster those from the past, the researchers said, noting, “A higher-than-expected number of deaths from suicide among veterinarians has been described in multiple studies — from Australia, Norway, and the United Kingdom.” Among the risk factors, they said, included “long work hours, work overload, practice management responsibilities, client expectations and complaints, euthanasia procedures, and poor work-life balance.”

In her book, Hamilton touches on many examples of why so many vets contemplate suicide, drawing from various research findings. They include: experiencing both professional and social isolation, being a perfectionist, having knowledge of and access to drugs that can cause death, acceptance of euthanasia as a philosophical way out, facing high levels of debt from vet school, working long hours, and fearing stigma when it comes to wanting to seek help.

Nadine Hamilton's new book is geared toward helping veterinarians deal with depressions and anxiety. (Photo: Australian Academic Press)

“I've had vets say to me that they go into [the field] because they don't want to deal with the people. They love the animals,” says Hamilton. “But then once they get into practice, they realize they have to deal with the owners of these animals. So that's where a lot of that conflict comes in.”

Nobody likes dealing with conflict, she adds, but when you go into a field to specifically avoid it — and you wind up having to deal with other people’s extreme emotions, including worry, anger and grief — you become very susceptible to burnout.

“You’re sometimes listening to horrific stories — if animals are being abused or not getting the treatment that could help them, it can become a real struggle,” Hamilton says.

Another very real struggle, she adds, is that of financial realities, one reason being that the typical profit margin for a vet practice is just five to seven percent. “They have to purchase so much equipment — if they’ve got a CT scan, it’s the same one we buy for humans — there are loans, and the interest is astronomical… and they’ve got to maintain the equipment… They’re not in control of how much the pharmaceutical companies are charging them, but they still get the snide remarks [about the expense].”

And the average veterinarian salary is about $80,000 — well below what physicians treating humans make, despite commonly held beliefs, Hamilton notes, that vets are raking it in.

Another source of stress, according to Hamilton’s research, are the “unrealistic expectations that are placed on vets.” For example, she says, a person could bring a pet to the vet to have a lump removed — only to have the growth return five years later, which can be startling to the pet owner. “There’s an expectation that, well, you've gotten rid of it, so it shouldn't come back!” she says. “Whereas, in human medicine, we’re more aware cognitively… You know there is still a risk that [cancer or a growth] could come back again.” That’s because there’s a more nuanced understanding of human medicine, and a process, she says, while at the vet, we just want our pet fixed and saved.

That black-and-white thinking has even led to bullying and threats of violence among vets she’s talked to for research, Hamilton says. “One vet had a gun pulled on him, with a threat along the lines of, ‘well, if my dog doesn’t wake up from the anesthetic, I’m going to shoot you.’”

Hamilton has some advice for pet owners who want to show be more empathetic towards their veterinarians.

“Just stopping and thinking about what might be going on for that vet. Because it's very easy [not to], as a pet owner taking that pet to the vet, particularly if it's in a traumatic or an emergency situation,” she says. “We’re worked up, you know, and we’re flustered and have stress… and we're not necessarily thinking about anyone else.”

Even at a routine checkup, she says, “We don't know what that vet has been through or what they're about to go through at other consultations.” Long waits that have you sitting there with your animals, long past your appointment time, could be due to a multitude of factors.

“We just don't think about what else is going on for them. They can come and put their happy face on for you, but they may have just euthanized someone's 16-year-old baby,” she says.“It's sort of like being in an emergency room in the hospital. They can have their appointments and their surgeries booked, but they never know what is going to come through the door.

So next time you’re tempted to make a sarcastic remark about waiting a long time or having to pay a big bill, Hamilton notes, know that “those words can really hurt.” She adds, “It's just about trying to be a bit more compassionate and empathic and thinking, what has this person just gone through today?”

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