Most veterinarians and a growing percentage of the public are aware of the startling statistics previously reported regarding suicide in the veterinary profession. With media sharing news of veterinarians dying by suicide every month, it might not be surprising to hear claims that veterinarians are between 2 and 4 times more likely than members of the general population to have thoughts of or die by suicide. Some studies even suggest that rates of suicide among veterinarians are higher than those of other professions such as dentist or doctors who have been known to die by suicide at alarmingly high rates.
An Executive Report published recently in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association shared the results of the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study. The authors of the study wanted to survey a large group of veterinarians by way of random sampling to gauge the prevalence of serious mental distress and suicidal ideation among American veterinarians. This contrasts with a previously published and widely publicized Center for Disease Control (CDC) study that was based on voluntary responses to a survey published online.
The survey recipients in the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study were chosen from a random sample of 20,000 email addresses obtained from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s database of currently working US veterinarians. More than 3,500 usable survey responses were obtained and were statistically assessed to ensure they represented the currently working US veterinarian population. Results from the veterinary respondents were then compared to adult respondents in the National Epidemiology Survey and Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC).
What did the survey responses reveal about suicide among veterinarians?
When presented with a list of issues and asked to indicate how important each one was to the veterinary profession, 52% of veterinarians responding to the Merck Animal Health Survey considered the suicide rate among veterinarians to be critically important. Among all veterinarians responding, 25% said that “at some time in their life, when their mood was at its lowest or they cared the least about things, they had thought about suicide”. As well, 1.6% of respondents reported that they had previously attempted suicide, comparable to the rate reported by the CDC study in 2015. However, when this rate is compared to the NESARC study, it appears that the rate of attempts of suicide among veterinarians is, in fact, lower than that of the adult population (5.1%).
Why do the results contradict what veterinary studies have shown previously?
Until this study was published, there was no previous definitive assessment of the prevalence of serious mental health issues among veterinarians. Previously published studies including the CDC study were completed based on voluntary responses to a public domain survey, which could have produced biased responses. In other words, veterinarians with an interest in mental health, perhaps struggling with their own mental health, or with an invested concern regarding suicide due to their own personal experiences, might have been more likely to respond. Any time a survey is completed on a volunteer basis, rather than by random sampling as in the Merck Animal Health Survey, there is a risk of bias in who will respond. Because the Merck Animal Health Survey selected veterinarians randomly from a database of emails and assessed the respondent demographics, they were able to ensure that the respondents represented the currently working US veterinary population.
Is suicide not the crisis it has been made out to be in among veterinarians?
Unfortunately, the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Survey did not provide the type of data needed to calculate the incidence of suicide among veterinarians, despite collecting data on suicidal ideation and attempts of suicide. So, we are still missing current information as to the incidence of North American veterinarians dying by suicide. While this has been assessed in studies in the UK published decades ago, both recent US studies fail to capture this statistic, given that those dying by suicide are not included in the responses garnered by the surveys.
What is next when it comes to wellbeing in veterinary medicine?
One thing remains clear. While suicide attempts might by lower among veterinarians than the general population, the Merck Animal Health study confirms that veterinary medicine is a stressful profession. Even veterinarians who are mentally healthy and exhibit high levels of wellbeing experience mental health concerns (i.e., depression, anxiety), compassion fatigue, and/or burnout with some regularity.
So, let’s keep the momentum going around initiatives to enhance veterinarian mental health and wellbeing, so that we can ensure that these statistics improve the next time such a survey is completed!
If you or someone you know are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please visit www.yourlifecounts.org/need-help/crisis-lines for a number to call in your area.
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.