Suicide Risk Highest Among Small Animal, Female Veterinarians
Amanda Carrozza is a freelance writer and editor in New Jersey.
According to a new CDC report, nearly 1 veterinarian has committed suicide every month since 1979. Female companion animal practitioners are at highest risk.
Of the nearly 400 veterinarians who died by suicide over the past 36 years, 75% worked in companion animal practice.
This sobering statistic was included in a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that was published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Although multiple studies have shown that the suicide rate among veterinarians is higher than that in the general population, this study is the first to illustrate increased suicide mortality among female veterinarians. Results showed that women are 3.5 times as likely as the population at large to die from suicide, and male veterinarians are about twice as likely. More than 60% of veterinarians in the United States are women.
According to the study report, the proportion of female veterinarians who died by suicide has remained at 10% since 2000, but the number of deaths has increased steadily over that time. Results from an earlier study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showed that female veterinarians have a higher prevalence of risk factors for suicide, including depression, suicidal ideation, and previous suicide attempts.
For the CDC’s study, NIOSH researchers looked at records from 11,620 veterinarians who died between 1979 and 2015. Study data came from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which maintains a data set of deaths of all known US veterinarians. These sources provided age, sex, race, clinical position, and species specialization. Using specialized software, researchers calculated proportionate mortality ratios to compare suicide deaths among veterinarians with those of the broader US population. The ratios indicated that suicide accounted for a greater proportion of deaths among veterinarians.
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As in the general population, firearms were the most commonly used method of suicide among veterinarians. What stood out, however, was that 37% of suicide deaths among veterinarians were caused by pharmaceutical poisoning. This is 2.5 times higher than pharmaceutical poisoning among the general population. Sixty-four percent of deaths among women and 32% of deaths among men in the profession were from this type of poisoning.
“This study shines a light on a complex issue in this profession,” said CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, MD. “Using this knowledge, we can work together to reduce the number of suicides among veterinarians.”
Suicide Prevention: An Industry-Wide Effort
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and CDC data indicate it is on the rise. Factors specific to the veterinary profession that may contribute to suicide are believed to include:
- High practice demands, such as long work hours, work overload, and practice management responsibilities
- High educational debt-to-income ratio
- Poor work-life balance
- Access to euthanasia solution used for animals and the training to calculate a dose that could also be lethal in people
While the conversation surrounding compassion fatigue, ethics exhaustion, and the importance of mental and emotional wellbeing is being held more frequently, much work remains to be done. Thankfully, additional resources are becoming available. MightyVet was launched earlier this year to bridge a gap in veterinary education by ensuring that veterinarians are informed of and prepared for the challenges they will face in practice. Through free online courses and a mentorship program, the group hopes to help veterinary professionals thrive both in their career and personal life.
Not One More Vet is an online support group that was founded in 2014 that has since grown into an international group of veterinarians who come together on Facebook to lend a supportive ear for their peers. Additionally, the AVMA has a number of resources related to mental wellbeing, including how to help colleagues you fear may be suffering from thoughts of suicide.
If you are in crisis, please seek help immediately by calling 800-273-8255 or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s Crisis chat team.