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5 things you didn’t know about the mental health of vets

  • September 29, 2016 5:18 PM EDT

    The high profile suicides of Dr. Shirley Koshi (general practitioner in New York State) and Dr. Sophia Yin (renowned animal behaviorist) in 2014 brought international attention to the mental health issues facing veterinarians. Since then, studies have been performed investigating the mental wellbeing of veterinarians in practice and the results are rather shocking to most people, both in and outside of the veterinary profession. Results suggest that veterinarians are between 2 and 4 times more likely than members of the general population to have thoughts of or commit suicide. Likewise, between 1 in 5 and 2 in 3 veterinarians suffer from major depression, which is an established risk factor for suicide.  

    A recent study performed in conjunction with the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveyed more than 11,000 currently practicing veterinarians in the USA, which comprised approximately 10% of the working veterinary population. The results highlight five surprising things about the mental health of veterinarians.

    1. Approximately 9% of veterinarians report currently experiencing serious psychological distress. Demographic characteristics associated with a higher prevalence of serious psychological distress include being female, 20-49 years old, and having a marital status of separated, divorced, or not previously married, and no children. Work-related characteristics associated with a higher prevalence of serious psychological distress include being a practice associate, practicing for less than 20 years, practicing shelter medicine, or not being a member of a veterinary medical association.
    2. Approximately 1 in 3 veterinarians report that they have had previous depressive episodes. The most commonly reported stressful factors associated with veterinary medicine are the demands of practice. A higher percentage of practice owners than associate or relief veterinarians report practice management responsibilities and competition with other veterinary practices as stressful factors, whereas a higher percentage of associate and relief veterinarians than practice owners report that professional mistakes, educational debt, unclear management and work role, and lack of participation in decision making are stressful factors.
    3. Suicidal ideation was experienced by 17% of veterinarians and since graduating from veterinary school, 1% of veterinarians attempted suicide. Although a high rate of suicidal ideation was reported, there were fewer non-fatal suicide attempts compared to the general adult US population. This result is likely two-fold: one, because veterinarians have easy access to lethal means to commit suicide (via barbiturate overdose or otherwise), non-fatal attempts are unlikely. And two, it is possible that the feeling of needing to cope with the suicidal thoughts, fulfill family responsibilities, or tend to children are factors that reduce suicidal tendencies.
    4. Just 19% of veterinarians report that they are currently receiving treatment for a mental health condition or emotional problem. This finding is likely related to the fact that veterinarians appear to have less positive attitudes towards mental health treatment and mental illness, compared with other US adults. Surprisingly, only 32% of veterinarians somewhat or strongly agree that people are caring towards others with mental illness, compared to 60% of US adults. Given how different the attitudes among veterinarians are towards mental health and treatment for mental illness compared to other US adults, it is clear that a stigma regarding mental health is prevalent. It is possible that veterinarians also see mental illness as a weakness. Clearly, efforts are needed at the beginning of the veterinary medical curriculum to reduce the perceived stigma towards those with mental illness.
    5. While 73% of veterinarians agree that they made the right career choice to enter veterinary medicine, 13% say that they are planning to leave veterinary medicine. The most commonly cited reasons for leaving include the demands of practice, practice management responsibilities, and client complaints.

    If you or a co-worker is in need of help, know that you are not alone and that there are people available who can provide assistance. Please get help by visiting the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.

    Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC, CYT is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher who also has an invested interest in the health and wellbeing of veterinary professionals. She organizes Veterinary Wellness Workshops & Retreats for veterinarians, technicians, and other veterinary care providers. To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here. More information can be found at