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What does this study reveal about veterinarian mental health?

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    May 30, 2018 8:26 PM EDT

    An Executive Report published this month in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association shared the results of the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study – appropriate timing given that May is Mental Health Awareness month.  The authors of the study wanted to survey a large group of veterinarians by way of random sampling to gauge the prevalence of serious mental distress among American veterinarians.  This contrasts with a previously published and widely publicized Center for Disease Control (CDC) study that was based on voluntary responses to a survey published online, which could have produced biased responses given that those with an interest in wellbeing (and potentially struggling with their own mental health) might have been more likely to respond. 

    Goals of the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Survey included quantification of the prevalence of mental illness among US veterinarians in comparison to the general population, identification of groups of veterinarians at highest risk for mental illness, and identification of factors that affect mental health among veterinarians.  The survey recipients were chosen from a random sample of 20,000 email addresses obtained from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s database of currently working US veterinarians.  Mental health was assessed using validated numerical scoring systems and compared to results of previous studies assessing the mental health of the general US working population.  More than 3,500 usable survey responses were obtained and were statistically assessed to ensure they represented the currently working US veterinarian population.

    Approximately 1 in 20 veterinarians reported experiencing serious psychological distress (e.g., feelings of nervousness, hopelessness, or worthlessness).  This represents 5.3% of respondents, which is not significantly different from the general US population who report a 4.7% prevalence of serious psychological distress.  However, the responses varied dramatically depending upon the segment of the veterinary population.  Specifically, younger male and female veterinarians (< 45 years old) had a higher prevalence of severe psychological distress compared to the same-aged general population, and single veterinarians had a 9.3% prevalence of serious psychological distress compared to veterinarians married or in a relationship (4.5%). 

    Serious psychological distress was also increased in association with a higher number of hours worked per week, working evenings, or working more or fewer hours than desired.  The prevalence of psychological distress was also more common among veterinarians working in clinical practice but was low to nonexistent for those working in food animal practice.  Survey results also confirmed that finances have a large impact on the mental health of veterinarians.  Respondents with student debt (regardless of the amount) and those dissatisfied with their financial situation had a higher prevalence of serious psychological distress. 

    But perhaps the most concerning finding of the survey and the reason why Mental Health Awareness month is so important, is the lack of treatment for mental illness and the stigma that persists among veterinarians who are struggling. 

    Like the CDC survey published previously, just half of veterinarians with serious psychological distress in the Merck Animal Health survey were receiving mental health treatment.  Of those veterinarians, 40% were receiving treatment for depression and 30% were receiving treatment for anxiety or panic attacks.  Unfortunately, employee assistance programs (EAP) offering treatment for mental illness were rarely cited (14%) by veterinarians with serious psychological distress, and only 16% had accessed other web-based resources (e.g., Veterinary Information Network).

    One factor that probably impedes veterinarians who need treatment from receiving it is the perception that help not available.  Only 46% of veterinarians with serious psychological distress agreed with the statement that “mental health treatment is accessible”.  Additionally, 60% of those veterinarians disagreed with the statement that “people are caring towards others with mental illness”; similar to what was revealed by the CDC study and confirmation that stigma causes veterinarians to hesitate seeking mental health treatment. 

    Considering these findings, it is imperative that veterinarians struggling with serious psychological distress have better access to mental health resources and feel supported by their peers.  The study authors urge any veterinarians who are experiencing psychological distress to meet with a mental health professional or social worker to develop a plan to mitigate stress and enhance their mental wellbeing.  They also suggest that those struggling with student debt consult with a certified financial planner to manage debt and expenses within their current income.  Finally, they implore employers to provide time off for mental health or financial planning appointments and to consider providing EAP that includes mental health support.

    While its comforting to know that veterinarians, in general, do not struggle with mental health any more than the average American, many veterinarians do need support and must have access to assistance.  To download a list of resources supporting veterinarian mental health and wellbeing, please click here.  And if you or a colleague of yours is struggling, know that there are many people who deeply care about others with mental illness and want to help.          

    Marie K. Holowaychuk, DVM, DACVECC is a small animal emergency and critical care specialist and certified yoga and meditation teacher with an invested interest in the health and well-being of veterinary professionals.  She facilitates wellness workshops, boot camps, and retreats for veterinarians, technicians, students, and other veterinary team members.  To sign up for newsletters containing information regarding these events and veterinary wellness topics, please click here.  More information can be found at www.criticalcarevet.ca.