04 October 2016

HEALTH - Doing More to Support Veterinarians' Mental Health

Although the underlying causes are still unknown, veterinarians experience high rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation, as well as death by suicide.

In the United States, veterinarians are the occupation third most-likely to die by suicide, after podiatrists and dentists.

In Britain, the percentage is even higher, and British veterinarians are four times as likely as the general population, and twice as likely as other health professionals, to die by suicide.

Some vet schools are taking the risk to their students’ mental health seriously.

The Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Regina, Saskatchewan, was the first vet school in Canada to have a trained social worker available for students.

The Ontario Veterinary College has launched the AWAR2E group – Advancement of Wellness and Resilience in Research and Education – to provide a multi-pronged approach to mental wellness, focusing on veterinarians, vet students, and agricultural producers.

The group will be following up their initial Ontario-based research with a Canada-wide survey next year.

Jean Wallace, PhD, at the University of Calgary undertook comprehensive research into the ups and downs of working as a veterinarian or technician in Alberta, and her report includes suggestions for how to cope with work-related stress as a vet or vet tech.

Other organizations have compiled mental and emotional health resource lists, such as this one from Veterinary News and the DVM360 magazine.

All of these resources are necessary, and will make a difference in the lives of vets and other animal-care professionals.

But what are the underlying causes of the high rates of mental and emotional distress, and of completed suicides, among veterinarians?

One suggestion that comes up again and again is the impact of euthanasia on veterinarians.

This is a complex issue. One study conducted in 2014 suggests that comfort and familiarity with euthanasia leads to a fearlessness about death, and other researchers have theorized that this fearlessness makes following through on suicidal ideation more likely among vets than among other high risk groups, such as other health care providers.

Euthanasia is also a factor for veterinarians because of the high emotional cost associated not only with ending a companion animal’s life, but with comforting the human.

In some cases, the emotional toll comes from seeing companion animals who were abused, mistreated, or abandoned, and receiving requests for convenience euthanasia or for other reasons that are not medically necessary.

The introduction of BSL in Montreal, and the potential spike in euthanasia of pitbulls, poses a risk to the mental health of shelter workers and veterinarians in that city.

The Montreal SPCA has already launched a lawsuit challenging the new law and been granted a two day stay, and Montreal vets, veterinary technicians, and shelter workers will all require extra mental health support during this process.

Although the rates of suicide and serious mental health concerns such as depression and anxiety are high in veterinarians in many countries, this is not universally the case.

Danish veterinarians do not experience the same increased risk that veterinarians in other areas do.

Learning more about how Denmark veterinarians build and maintain their mental health may offer insights and ideas to incorporate into North American programs.

By Tiffany Sostar
Tiffany is a writer, editor, academic, and animal lover who came late to her appreciation of pets. At 18, a rescue pup named Tasha saved her from a depression and she hasn't looked back. She has worked as the canine behaviour program coordinator for the Calgary Humane Society, and was a dog trainer specializing in working with fearful and reactive dogs for many years. She doesn't have any pets right now, but makes up for it by giving her petsitting clients (and any dogs she comes across on her frequent coffee shop adventures) extra snuggles.

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