Every day, animal practitioners are inundated with animals in pain, owners begging for help, euthanasia and patient after patient who is paralyzed in fear. Veterinarians, both large- and small-animal, are often under crippling levels of stress and are unfortunately more likely to commit suicide than the average U.S. citizen.
About 5.3% of vets suffer from serious psychological distress, in line with the general population. Younger vets, however, tend to experience higher levels of distress. According to a study conducted by Merck Animal Health, 8.6% of veterinarians between 18 and 34 years old and 9.1% of those between 35 and 45 years old have or are currently experiencing psychological distress. Those numbers drop significantly after reaching 55 years old.
Male vets are 2.1 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. Women are 3.5 times more likely—and 60% of all veterinarians are women. Since 2000, 10% of female veterinarians die by suicide, but the number of deaths is steadily increasing, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC).
“It can be difficult to recognize and respond when a co-worker seems to be struggling,” says Laurie Fonken, psychological counselor for Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. “If you notice a change in their behavior, demeanor or mood, note the change and find a quiet, confidential place to check in with them.
“Even if you are met with resistance, stating your concerns in a genuine way and letting the person know you are there if they need it may be just the thing to help them realize it is ok to seek support,” she adds.
Ways to help prevent veterinarian suicide
Because veterinarians are under stress conditions unique to other occupations, there are signs to watch for that could be warnings someone is having suicidal thoughts, according to CDC research. Here are factors that could increase vet stress and suicidal actions:
- Long work hours, work overload and practice management responsibilities
- High levels of student debt—on average, about $140,000 or more
- Poor work life balance, missing personal events because of an animal emergency
CDC has a detailed program for preventing suicide, find the link here. If you or someone you know have experienced changes in behavior, expressed thoughts of suicide or shown any warning signs, reach out for help before it’s too late.