I was a bit taken aback a few weeks ago when I received a comment on one of my blogs accusing me of “discriminating against male veterinarians”. Having not been accused of sexism before and considering myself a “lover of all beings”, I was confused and concerned by this claim. After engaging in a “virtual” conversation with the individual, I discovered that he felt that my blogs focused more on struggles felt by women compared to men, and he wanted me to be sure to know that male veterinarians are struggling just the same. Of course, I apologized for my oversight and scanned through my last year of bi-weekly blogs to see if this was indeed the case. While I cannot say that I agree with his claim, I admit that I can only really speak to my perspective and experience, which is that of a female veterinarian. That said, it got me thinking…are men really struggling as much as women in the veterinary profession?
When you consider the research investigating mental health among adults, there are some notable sex-related differences. According to the World Health Organization, overall rates of psychiatric disorder are almost identical for men and women; however, prominent gender differences are found in the patterns of mental illness. These differences occur particularly in the rates of common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. Women are particularly susceptible to these disorders, which affect approximately 1 in 3 people. Unipolar depression, predicted to be the second leading cause of global disability burden by 2020, is twice as common in women. On the other hand, alcohol dependence, another common disorder, is more than twice as likely to affect men compared to women. In developed countries, approximately 1 in 5 men and 1 in 12 women develop alcohol dependence during their lives.
But what about the stats when it comes to veterinarians in particular? While studies consistently describe moderate levels of stress reported equally by male and female veterinarians, those same studies suggest that female vets are more likely to report burnout compared to male vets. Likewise, several studies investigating the mental health of veterinarians suggest that women are more likely to report psychological distress and depression than men. But do these findings mean that women are struggling more with their mental health? Or are they simply a reflection of women’s willingness to disclose their struggles more than men? I think there are probably a lot of men out there who would rather not admit they are struggling, especially given the stigma that veterinarians have around mental health.
In the UK, male veterinarians are 3 times more likely and female veterinarians 4-6 times more likely than the general population to die by suicide. But is that to say that female veterinarians are suffering more than men or rather that women in veterinary medicine are proportionately more likely than women in other professions to die by suicide? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but it is grounds for an interesting discussion.
Recently, the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study published findings from more than 3,500 survey responses from veterinarians working in the USA. The study measured wellbeing with an index based on three standard questions that were scored on a scale of 0 to 10. Veterinarians were then allocated to three categories: flourishing (scores of 7-10), getting by (scores of 4-6), and suffering (scores of 0-3). On average, male vets scored higher in wellbeing than female vets. Interestingly, vets who were married or in a relationship (not single) and working in food animal (not other veterinary practice) had higher wellbeing scores, and (I’m generalizing here) I know more male than female veterinarians who fall into these categories. So, is it gender or other factors that determine a veterinarian’s wellbeing?
While these statistics suggest that perhaps female veterinarians really do struggle more with their mental health and wellbeing compared to male vets, I acknowledge it is not cut and dry. In other words, just because you are a woman in veterinary medicine does not mean you will have mental health problems, and just because you are a man in veterinary medicine does not mean you will have it easier when it comes to your mental health and wellbeing. There are clearly many factors at play.
The Merck Animal Health study found that participating in healthy activities not related to work such as traveling, reading for pleasure, spending time with family, socializing with friends, having a hobby, exercising regularly, and being in a relationship, were strongly associated with higher levels of wellbeing. So, while the research is ongoing when it comes to veterinarian mental health, in the meantime, regardless of sex, we can all benefit from spending more time partaking in activities unrelated to veterinary medicine. Ukulele lessons, here I come!
Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher with an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals. Starting in 2019, Marie will be offering personalized wellness sessions to those who work in the veterinary profession. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these sessions, please click here. More information about Marie and her other offerings can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca.