Younger veterinarians more stressed than older veterinarians, population as a whole

How do you feel about the veterinary profession?

Wait, here’s a better question: How old are you?

How you feel about the profession varies with age, according to a new, first-of-its-kind study conducted by Merck Animal Health and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).

The Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study surveyed more than 3,500 AVMA members to quantify the prevalence of mental illness and levels of wellbeing in the veterinary profession.

The good news is, veterinarians as a group don’t seem to experience psychological stress at significantly higher rates than the general population. That offers a cheerier view than a 2014 study whose findings indicated that veterinarians were at a higher risk for mental illness and suicide.

The bad news is, the Merck study found that younger veterinarians are more likely to experience psychological distress than the general population.

NEWStat reached out to one of the study’s authors, Linda Lord, DVM, PhD, academic and allied industry liaison lead for Merck Animal Health, for comment.

“I think it’s good news that, overall, our levels of serious psychological distress are about the same as in the general population, which is about 1 in 20,” Lord said. “Having said that, we have some pockets of concern. When you look at veterinarians under the age of 45, you see higher levels of psychological distress than you do in the similar age groups in the general population.”

Among all veterinarians who experience psychological stress, the most frequently reported conditions are depression (98%), burnout (88%), and anxiety (83%). And while half of those report seeking treatment, only 16% are using mental health resources available through national or state veterinary organizations.

But why is it worse among younger veterinarians?

Lord said that, to answer that question, we need to look at the factors associated with better wellbeing. “It’s things like higher income, fewer working hours, being [a practice] owner, not having student debt,” she said, and noted that all those factors are more normally associated with being an older veterinarian.

“The more important point for me is, when you look at both wellbeing and mental health, younger veterinarians probably have more challenges,” Lord said. “Maybe that’s not surprising.”

Lord points out some of those challenges: When young veterinarians graduate from veterinary school, their support network of college friends is gone; they’re suddenly faced with paying off student debt—a huge expense they’re not used to factoring into their budget; and they’re not earning as much as they probably want to be.

They have a lot of stressors, and student debt is likely the biggest cause.

According to AVMA, the average student debt for 2016 veterinary school graduates was $167,534. And high student debt is the top concern for veterinarians ages 45 and under, according to the Merck Study: 67% rated it as a critically important issue.

Other serious concerns for those 45 and under are stress levels (53%) and suicide rates within the profession (52%).

“Being a veterinarian is a stressful profession,” Lord acknowledged. “That doesn’t make it a bad profession. It’s an incredibly rewarding profession. But there are stresses [that come] with being a veterinarian. So how set up are [younger veterinarians] to deal with it?”

“I think that we have some issues we need to address,” Lord said. “We’ve got to figure out some ways to reduce student debt. Try to really focus on culture and work-life balance.”

Lord remains optimistic about the veterinary profession. “I think it can be a very rewarding profession, and an opportunity to do well. But we’ve really got to help our young people, and there are a lot of ways to do that.”

Photo credit: © iStock/grinvalds

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