Study: Female veterinarians more prone to suicide

The numbers are grim.

According to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), female veterinarians are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than members of the general population. And while female veterinarians account for two-thirds of US veterinarians, their suicide rate is more than twice that for male veterinarians, who are 2.1 times more likely to take their own lives as members of the general population.

The study was published last month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.

CDC researchers analyzed records from the AVMA’s obituary and life insurance databases and the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Altogether, they looked at the death records of 11,620 veterinarians who died between 1979 and 2015.

Approximately 3% of those veterinarians died by suicide.

Sadly, it’s not a new phenomenon—the suicide rate among all veterinarians maintained a fairly steady rate throughout the 36-year period covered by the study.

The CDC says the study is the first to show increased suicide mortality among female veterinarians.

The researchers noted that veterinary schools select applicants who tend toward perfectionism so that they can meet the rigorous academic requirements, but that perfectionism is often related to higher risk of mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety.

According to the study, “Veterinarians with certain personality traits who are exposed to unmanaged occupational stressors might be at risk for developing serious psychological distress, depression, and suicidal ideations.” The study also says: “Veterinarians are trained to view euthanasia as an acceptable method to relieve suffering in animals, which can affect the way veterinarians view human life, including a reduced fear about death, especially among those experiencing suicidal ideation.”

NEWStat asked Suzanne Tomasi, DVM, MPH, DACVPM, an epidemic intelligence service officer at the CDC and the study’s corresponding author, if the findings indicated why female veterinarians were more prone to suicide.

But the study produced no clear answers, only the troubling possibility of a continuing trend:

“Our study did not assess why female veterinarians had a higher proportionate mortality for suicide or what it means for the future of female veterinarians,” Tomasi said. “However, should the high proportionate mortality from suicide among female veterinarians endure as the number of females in the veterinary profession continues to grow, the number of suicide deaths among female veterinarians could continue to increase.”

But John Volk, senior analyst and consultant at Brakke Consulting, Inc. and a coauthor of the 2019 Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study told NEWStat that the CDC study’s findings, while grim, had an upside:

“The fact that there is recognition in the profession that [suicide] is a problem is a good thing because it brings it out in the open,” Volk said. “We know from the Merck study that two-thirds of veterinarians have felt signs of depression or burnout or compassion fatigue in the past year. What that tells us is that veterinary medicine is a very stressful profession.”

Volk said that’s not surprising, given that veterinarians deal with life and death on a daily basis. “They deal with emergencies, they deal with schedule disruptions, they deal with financial pressures, both their own and [those of] clients who may or may not be able to afford procedures.”

While there are no easy answers, Volk said that the profession can begin to deal with the problem on a very personal level by having practice owners talk openly about it. “It’s important for practices to discuss [with staff] the fact that veterinary medicine is a stressful profession and it’s logical for practitioners to feel stress, to sometimes feel overwhelmed by stress.”

In short, acknowledge the problem and make it public.

Volk said this can have a huge impact on staff members who are feeling very distressed but may think they’re the only ones who feel that way and are afraid to acknowledge it: “This gives them permission to recognize their feelings and to realize that others may be feeling them as well, and that it’s not atypical in the profession.”

Most importantly, Volk said, encourage people to seek help if they’re distressed: See a physician, seek counselling, or do something as simple as take a mental health day to spend time with family and friends, read, travel, exercise, or pursue hobbies.

“In [the Merck study], we found that veterinarians who spent time away from the practice [doing those things] had much lower levels of stress than people who didn’t,” Volk said.

Photo credit: © iStock/Juanmonino