Suicide rates amongst Australian vets are alarmingly high. In fact, studies show that vets are four times more likely to die by suicide compared to the general population.
The study ‘Suicide in Australian Veterinarians’ led by Dr. Helen Jones-Fairnie from Curtin University, WA, revealed that poisoning by injectable drugs was the most cause of suicide. Additionally, nine out of the 11 veterinarians who committed suicide in the 13-year period between 1990 and 2002 were based in rural or regional towns.
A similar study by Dr. Alison Milner from the University of Melbourne concluded that the reasons for veterinary suicides are multifactorial but include work and life-related stressors and individual characteristics. The researches highlighted the need for targeted suicide prevention and intervention for veterinarians.
Vet Life Australia (the website of Australian Veterinary Mental Health Awareness and Suicide prevention) reports the following:
- 6% of veterinarians suffer stress
- 6% of veterinarians suffer depression
- 4% suffer work-related burnout
- Veterinarians have almost four times the suicide rate as the Australian population. This equates to a veterinarian committing suicide on average every 12 weeks in Australia
Dr. Peter Hatch, professional counsellor, secretary and directory of Vet Life Australia, says focussing on the aspect of suicide is just the tip of the iceberg. It does not address the underlying issue of mental health and therefore isn’t a solution to the problem.
In his research paper titled ‘Workplace Stress, Mental Health and Burnout in Australian Veterinarians’ (published in the Australian Veterinary Journal in 2011), he highlights the need to modify the curricula of veterinary schools to include the teaching of personal cognitive and coping skills to undergraduate veterinary students.
He says that the opportunity to enhance these skills, along with changes in the veterinary workplace, could lead to improved mental health amongst Australian vets, increased job engagement and career satisfaction.
What causes high-level stress amongst vets?
“Reducing the impact of stress will both reduce the levels of burnout reported and reduce the depression and anxiety as workplace stress is the precursor to both,” says Dr. Hatch.
He adds, “It’s important to be cognizant of the fact that what one individual finds stressful another will cope with a different response. From this perspective the range of potential stressors varies with the individual concerned.
“Stressors arising from clinical procedures including consulting, anesthesia, surgical procedures, clinical mistakes and poor outcomes (including death of a patient), as well as any time personal expectations are not met.
“Also reported are long hours and being “on-call” after hours for emergencies. From a management perspective finding appropriate staff, retaining staff and staff conflict rank highly.
“The hours worked are often unsociable leading to isolation. Comparatively low income (compared with 25 other professions, veterinarians rank 23) impacts self worth too.
“Clients and their behaviour and expectations are also reported as stressors. The inability of clients to afford optimum veterinary attention (laboratory costs, ultrasounds etc) reduces the potential job satisfaction for the veterinarian involved.”
View from the field
Vet Anita Link explains the highly emotional side of the job. “We are heavily emotionally invested in the outcomes for our patients yet we are often accused of only doing our jobs for the money—even though we are underpaid given the amount of study we do and the level of responsibility. We also spend our days acting as shock absorbers for our clients’ emotions.
She says perfectionism is rife amongst vets and this can be a factor in suicide.
“It takes a certain amount of perfectionism to achieve the marks to study veterinary science at university and to eventually graduate. At university we are taught best practice and to work at a high standard. But in the real world our clients can’t always afford best practice.
“If we can’t adjust our thinking, that perfectionism can lead to a constant feeling of failure.
“Some practices simply don’t provide the conditions to work to the standards we set ourselves. One practice I worked in in the UK had five-minute consultations, with extras slotted in as necessary.
“Perfectionism also increases the risk of suicide because it can be linked to all or nothing thinking: the idea that only 100% is good enough.”
Championing better mental health
Dr Hatch advises, “There are numerous skills that can be acquired to reduce the impact of stress and these are all part of cognitive behaviour therapy. They include relaxation techniques, regular exercise, disputing irrational beliefs (often learnt) assertive communication techniques and a knowledge and practice of wellness behaviours.
“However, there appears to be an overarching attitude within the profession that wellbeing is not worthy of either personal or practice investment—even when research indicates that improving wellbeing increases profitability and productivity between 3% and 13%.”
To her fellow vets Anita says, “Work out what you value most in your workplace and find a practice whose values align closely with yours. For me this was quality over quantity. If you can afford it, work part-time or at least take regular time off to do things you love that don’t involve veterinary work.
“Don’t tie up all your self-esteem in your career. Look out for each other and talk about work pressures and how they affect you. If you are feeling overwhelmed by negative feelings over a prolonged period, find a psychologist you work well with to help put strategies in place to deal with work place stressors.”
She urges veterinary practice owners or managers not to put pressure on vets to not take sick leave if they need it and to pay overtime where it is due.
“As a practice, encourage pet owners to take out pet insurance to lessen the financial pressure on them and reduce the work pressure on vets.
“Educate students of Veterinary Science about the risks of suicide in the profession and how to look after their mental health, before they start work.
“The veterinary industry generally doesn’t discuss mental health or illness unless they lose an employee to suicide. We need to have conversations around employee mental health and the risk of suicide in this profession earlier, for example, at regular staff meetings.”
When operating a vet practice or even just consulting as a vet there are a myriad of unexpected events that can happen which could result in a claim being made against you or your practice—leading to mental and workplace stress, as well as threatening your practice – regardless of whether you are in the right or wrong.
Pet Professional Insurance has a range of options for you, but in the first instance you may want to consider Professional Indemnity and Public Liability, which will cover you in the event of negligent or civil liability claims against you and from third party bodily injury or property damage arising from your work as a veterinarian. When you have good insurance in place, you can gain a level of peace of mind knowing that you and your practice can be protected financially.
Australian Veterinary Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention Ltd is one of the only organisations providing wellbeing skills training. Visit the website: vetlifeaustralia.com.au
The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) offers a Graduate Mentoring Program that provides training for mentors to recognise depression and anxiety and support graduates through their transition into the workforce. Visit the AVA website.
The AVA also provides a 24/7 telephone counselling service on 1300 337 068.
For some professional advice, Anita recommends the book Coping with Stress and Burnout as a Veterinarian: An Evidence-Based Solution to Increase Wellbeing, by psychologist Nadine Hamilton. Find it here.
Blog post by vet Anita Link: Why our vets are dying for your pets.
Jones-Fairnie, H et al, Suicide rates in Australian veterinarians. Australian Veterinary Journal Volume 86, No 4, April 2008. Accessed via: https://www.ava.com.au/sites/default/files/documents/Other/Jones-Fairnie2008.pdf
Milner A et al, Suicide in veterinarians and veterinary nurses in Australia: 2001–2012. Australian Veterinary Journal Volume 93, September 2015