Caring too much: suicide among vets

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suicide rates among vets are as high as four times the average
Image by Mirko Sajkov on Pixabay

Studies have revealed elevated rates of suicide in the veterinary profession across several countries – including the UK. But what are the causes, and what help is available for struggling veterinary professionals?

Over a year into a global pandemic, many aspects of our lives have been negatively impacted – not least our mental health. A study published in The Lancet Psychiatry in July 2020 found that by April 2020 “mental health in the UK had deteriorated compared with pre-COVID-19 trends”.

Things were not to improve in the following months. When mental health charity Mind analysed NHS figures in November 2020, they immediately sounded the alarm.

Vetlife saw the calls to their Helpline rising by over 25 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year

“According to analysis of NHS Digital figures, urgent and emergency referrals of people in crisis have shot up since the beginning of the first national lockdown, with figures for June and July higher than ever previously recorded,” a statement from the charity read.

“Overall, there was a 15 per cent increase in these referrals from March until July – the most recent figures published. A total of 2,276 more urgent and emergency referrals were made in July alone this year compared to the same month last year. There was also a 19 per cent increase in people detained for mental health treatment who were admitted to acute beds.”

Veterinary professionals were affected as well. Vetlife, an independent charity providing free and confidential support to anyone in the UK veterinary community, saw the calls to their Helpline rising by over 25 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year, when the calls were 3,117. It is a concerning number, but sadly not a surprise: even before the pandemic, the suicide rate in the veterinary profession was found to be significantly higher than many other professions.

Veterinary surgeon and trustee of the veterinary charity Vetlife Danny Chambers says that there is not one single reason for the higher incidence of suicide compared to the general population, but rather several factors adding up.

“When vets call Vetlife Helpline, not all their struggles are work-related – but vets do work under a lot of pressure,” he says.

“Ours is a relatively small profession – nearly everyone knows of someone who was lost to suicide.”

Among the things veterinary professionals who turn to Vetlife report struggling with are the long hours of work, being on call for long stretches of time, unexpected outcomes, difficult clients, ethical issues and lack of support. Putting a pet to sleep while supporting a distraught owner, Danny explains, also takes a toll.

The first lockdown was especially difficult for veterinary professionals, who had the delicate task of balancing safety measures while also providing the best possible care to their patients as well as support for the owners. 

“Most clients have been very understanding during the pandemic, but we had a lot of instances in which people were very angry they were not allowed into the practice with their pets – we had some really difficult situations,” Danny says. “Vets also dealt with guilt when owners couldn’t be with their pet when it was put to sleep – a difficult choice that kept many awake at night.”

veterinary practice

“Ours is a relatively small profession – nearly everyone knows of someone who was lost to suicide.”

Vetlife works to help those in the veterinary community who may be struggling with mental health through its three support services: the 24/7 Vetlife Helpline, Vetlife Health Support, and Vetlife Financial Support. The Vetlife Helpline, manned by trained volunteers, is vital in helping people reach out and talk to someone before the situation reaches a crisis point.

As well as serving as a trustee of Vetlife, Danny has founded Veterinary Voices UK – a Facebook group for vets and vet nurses to talk about their issues and exchange advice. A page accessible to the public is available here.

“It is very helpful to see you are not the only one struggling,” Danny says. “It is important to remove the stigma around mental health issues. It is not unusual, nor something to be ashamed of.

“Help is available. Reach out.”

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