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Friday, May 22, 2015

Veterinarians and Suicide

Several veterinary newsmagazines and journals have recently published articles on the high rate of suicide among members of my profession. According to statistics for 2014, male and female veterinarians have considered suicide at a rate of 14% and 19% respectively, compared to rates of 5% and 7% among the general US population. These numbers are also higher than those for people in other medical professions. Scary stuff from where I sit.

There are varying opinions on why veterinarians experience high rates of depression, suicide, and suicide "ideation." As I read through these opinions, I began to relate and better understand this tragic phenomenon. First of all, our job is quite stressful. I suppose everyone thinks their job is stressful! But, keep in mind that more and more people really consider their pets as family members (me too!) When their four-legged family members become seriously ill or injured, it's a really big deal. The rub is, there is no insurance company or government-subsidized system to help pay for expensive care. This places two burdens squarely on the shoulders of the veterinarian: 1.A specialist referral is often not an option, so the general practitioner is on her own for the diagnosis and treatment 2. There is pressure (and guilt) to keep costs low, but without jeopardizing the outcome. I'm not having a pity party here, but it really is unfair what is sometimes expected of us.

Then there is the euthanasia thing. I really feel that ending the life of a suffering animal is one of the kindest and most compassionate things we do. But often we are asked to euthanize a young healthy pet because of a behavior problem, or for an inconvenience the pet is causing the family. Don't get me wrong, sometimes euthanasia is the only safe and compassionate solution for a behavior problem. But it sure takes a toll on us to end the life of a young, bright-eyed dog or cat. Even in cases of old pets with incurable diseases it can be awful. Often, we have known these animals and their owners for 10 years or more. The grief in the room can be overwhelming. Sometimes, the grief goes home with us, and we see those pets in our dreams.

One article discussed personality traits which veterinarians often possess that might increase the risk of depression and suicide. Veterinarians tend to be extremely hard on themselves. We are not "buck-passers." In addition, we tend to be "...highly-driven perfectionists and high achievers." And to further add to the risk of suicide, one expert describes veterinarians as "...lone wolves. They like to go into a corner and lick their wounds. Companionship and community lead to positivity and happiness, but veterinarians are introverts and soloists."

On a personal note, I feel very fortunate to have earned the privilege of being a veterinarian. I honestly can't imagine having enjoyed myself as much in any other profession (which I could realistically have achieved, which rules out rock star and quarterback!) I can certainly relate and have experienced the risk factors mentioned above, but I have never considered taking my own life. For this I credit a sincere and meaningful relationship with God (and a church family which nourishes that); an amazing family support group which includes my late mother, my amazing wife Kathy, my three terrific kids, my older sisters, and my dad. And I also credit the fact that I have been able to work beside some really gifted and giving veterinarians, as well as having a relationship with our support staff over the years that has felt more like "my family" than "my employees."

It really is a rewarding career in many ways. I never would have thought  that becoming a veterinarian would increase one's risk for suicide, but after learning why it is, I get it. I have never had a colleague end their life, and I hope I never do. But I do worry about my friends in the profession - stay strong guys!