Breaking the silence: veterinarians and mental health

What causes depression in veterinarians?

If you or someone you know are having thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please call Suicide Crisis Helpline at 988.

Have you ever found yourself attempting to explain your job to a fellow airplane passenger, only to be met with perplexed looks and an awkward silence?

If the answer is yes, I can totally relate.

As a veterinarian and advocate for mental health and well-being, I often encounter pet owners and curious individuals who are puzzled by my role. “So, you advocate for the wellness of animals and their families?” they inquire. I shake my head and respond, “No, I advocate for the veterinarians and team members who help the animals and their families.

You might wonder why I don’t just say, “I’m a veterinarian,” and leave it at that. Well, nine times out of 10, the person responds with questions about their dog’s itchiness or their cat’s litter box habits.

To avoid the inevitable flood of advice-seeking that follows, I launch into an explanation about the realities of mental health among veterinarians.

Do veterinarians have a high depression rate?

In a 2020 research study investigating the mental health of Canadian veterinarians, survey respondents showed more symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to the general population. This was particularly true for female veterinarians, whose symptoms surpassed those of their male counterparts.

This discrepancy isn’t surprising, given that the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that while one in five Canadians experiences a mental illness in any given year, women have higher rates of mood and anxiety disorders compared to men.

Moreover, about one in four veterinarians who responded to the survey admitted to thoughts of suicide over the preceding 12 months — a rate substantially higher than the prevalence of suicidal ideation among Canadians (three per cent in 2019).

About 1 in 4 veterinarians who responded to the survey admitted to thoughts of suicide over the preceding 12 months.

These findings emerged less than a year after another study revealed that male veterinarians were 2.5 times and female veterinarians 3.5 times more likely than the general United States population to die by suicide between 1979 and 2015.

Approximately 4,500 Canadians die by suicide each year, averaging almost 12 suicides a day.

While overall suicide rates in Canada have decreased per capita since the early 1980s, there has been a consistent increase in the number of deaths among female veterinarians.

Research indicates that since 2000, one in 10 deaths among female veterinarians has been attributed to suicide.

Why more veterinarians are dying by suicide compared to the general public?

In discussions about suicide in the veterinary profession, people often ask why more veterinarians are dying by suicide compared to the general public.

The reality is that suicide emerges at the intersection of various risk factors, primarily stemming from untreated or inadequately addressed mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or substance use, combined with easy access to lethal means.

An investigation into suicides and deaths of undetermined intent among veterinarians in the United States between 2003 and 2014 revealed poisoning, particularly with the euthanasia drug pentobarbital, as the leading cause of death.

When deaths involving this drug were excluded, the rate of suicide among veterinarians was similar to that of the general population during this period.

Cultural factors and beliefs also play a significant role in influencing suicide risk — areas and demographics that display lower stigma regarding mental health issues and a more open attitude toward seeking assistance typically experience lower suicide rates.

It’s possible that more veterinarians die by suicide compared to the general population because of heightened obstacles to care, including stigma.

In 2022, a survey of nearly 300 veterinarians in the United States showed that 80 per cent didn’t seek mental health services, with more than half reporting at least mild anxiety or depression symptoms. Surveys in Australia, New Zealand, and the United States revealed moderate mental health stigma among veterinarians that was more prominent than that demonstrated by the general public.

Stopping the stigma of mental illness in veterinary medicine

This emphasizes the need to reduce stigma and promote mental health treatment within the veterinary community.

Despite these disheartening statistics, they underscore the need for a comprehensive understanding of predisposing factors within the veterinary profession. Initiatives must be undertaken to develop targeted strategies for preventing suicide among this population.

Engaging in open conversations, eliminating stigma, and enhancing mental health support mechanisms are essential components of any effective intervention strategy.

Organizations such as the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association are offering stigma reduction programs like The Working Mind. In Alberta, the provincial veterinary medical association has been on a mission for nearly a decade to have at least one team member in every veterinary practice certified in Mental Health First Aid.

The American Veterinary Medical Association also provides free suicide prevention training, and I supplemented my training years ago with a 2-day Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training.

The unsettling reality of heightened suicide rates among veterinarians, particularly females, demands a collective acknowledgment of the issue and concerted efforts to implement evidence-based interventions to diminish stigma and prevent suicide among veterinary professionals.