2nd May 2018
Veterinarians mental health.
A series of studies conducted in recent years have identified elevated rates of depression, anxiety and suicide among Australian veterinarians, with a suicide rate four times higher than the general population. These figures are consistent with studies conducted in Great Britain and America. There is clearly a common thread concerning the mental health challenges of the profession. Murdoch University is currently conducting research on the mental health of Australian veterinarians, which will hopefully assist the profession in improving the mental well-being of its members.
Multiple studies cite risk factors such as long hours and highly stressful decision-making, the difficulty of recruiting locums to take much needed breaks, and in rural areas these difficulties are compounded by professional isolation. These are common stressors across many professions, but there are additional emotional stressors, such as the regular killing of animals, combined with easy access to lethal drugs, that are unique to the veterinary profession. The 2016 Australian National Coronial Information System report noted a history of self-poisoning suicides linked to drugs available in veterinary clinics.
While there are no equivalent Australian figures, British studies showed that 81 per cent of veterinarians entered the profession due to their desire to work with the human-animal bond. Women veterinarians in particular were identified as having high levels of empathy towards animals. This empathy towards animals may, in a large part, be the cause of the mental distress experienced by veterinarians. Across a range of international studies, young and female veterinarians are at greatest risk of job dissatisfaction, leading to mental health difficulties and suicidal ideation. “Compassion fatigue” or “vicarious trauma” was identified as a risk factor leading to suicide.
The realities of veterinary practice can be emotionally gruelling. Many vets speak of the distress of being responsible for ending animals’ lives, either directly in the case of euthanising sick or injured animals, or worse, being required to kill perfectly healthy unwanted animals, or indirectly in the case of the slaughter of farmed animals. Vets also found themselves in professionally challenging situations where they encountered animal abuse and neglect. Some studies have questioned whether the routine euthanising or killing of animals impacted on attitudes towards death more generally.
In surveys, vets showed higher support for human voluntary euthanasia than the general population. This attitude to death may even facilitate self-justification and lower their inhibitions towards suicide as a rational solution to their personal problems.
As a society we could do a much better job of providing funding and resources to ensure that no vet is required to kill perfectly healthy animals that have been abandoned or surrendered to council pounds or RSPCA shelters. The growth of no-kill shelters not only is a more humane approach to companion animals but also removes the risk of psychological harm to vets who are forced to administer the “green dream” to healthy animals. Even the upside of being a veterinarian—having clients with strong emotional ties to their companion animals—could create distress. The emotional intensity of that bond adds stress when the time arrives for euthanising sick or aged animals that are considered part of the family.
I commend the work of our veterinarians in alleviating animal suffering. My personal heroes are those vets who find the time to work pro bono or provide discounted fees to companion animal rescue groups, wildlife carers and farmed animal sanctuaries. Perhaps the Australian Veterinary Association may consider supporting veterinarians as they deliver these services as a way of providing a channel for their compassion and empathy towards animals.