Veterinarians and Mental Health: CDC Results and Resources

SuicideLifelineImageThe recent suicides of Dr. Shirley Koshi and Dr. Sophia Yin brought national attention to the issues of depression, mental health and suicide, which have been an increasingly discussed situation within our profession.

Every 40 seconds a person dies by suicide somewhere in the world. Over 800,000 people die due to suicide every year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds. (See the World Health Organization’s report, Preventing Suicide: A Global Imperative, for these facts and more.)

How does the veterinary profession compare to the U.S. population regarding depression, mental illness, and suicide? The results of a recent survey performed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a number of health agencies don’t paint a rosy picture.

These results are based on more than ten thousand practicing veterinarians who responded to the survey, most (69%) of whom are in small animal practice. According to the survey:

  • 6.8% of males and 10.9% of females in the profession have serious mental illness/psychiatric disorder, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness since graduation from veterinary school. Compared to 3.5% and 4.4% lifetime average in the U.S., males in the veterinary profession have twice the prevalence and females in the profession have two to three times the prevalence compared to the national average.
  • 24.5% of males and 36.7% of females in veterinary medicine have experienced depressive episodes since leaving veterinary school, which is about one-and-a-half times the prevalence of a U.S. adult throughout their lifetime.
  • 14.4% of males and 19.1% of females in the veterinary profession have considered suicide since leaving veterinary school. This is three times the U.S. national average.
  • 1.1% of males and 1.4% of females in the veterinary profession have attempted suicide since leaving veterinary school. This is below the national average for suicide attempts and the authors suggest that it may be due to veterinarians’ ready access to drugs used in lethal suicide attempts, that they are more likely to die by suicide, thus there are fewer survivors to respond to the survey.
  • The three primary stressors identified by the respondents were the demands of veterinary practice; veterinary practice management responsibilities; and professional mistakes and client complaints.

There is a stigma among our profession toward those with mental illness, as though mental illness is a weakness that should be stifled, overcome or simply cut out like a surgeon excising a growth. But it’s not that simple. Mental illness is not a weakness or a personal or professional failing; it’s a real medical condition that must be treated.

If you think your mental or emotional health is falling by the wayside and in need of some help, you’re not alone and there are people who can help you. Please get help. Do you recognize potential signs in a friend or colleague? Support them, but also get help from experienced mental health professionals.  See the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website for more information. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline website also provides a number of useful resources, including a Suicide Prevention Lifeline Safety Plan. The University of Tennessee’s Veterinary Social Work program is another great resource. Feel free to share others in the comments below. There’s also a great series of TED talks on mental health, available online.

Our Peer Assistance and Wellness resources provide valuable information, as do several of our Simple Answers to Tough Questions videos. The members of the 2014-2015 AVMA Future Leaders program recognized the need to develop focused resources to help veterinarians, and those resources are in development now and are anticipated to be available before or during the AVMA Convention in Boston. Speaking of the convention, there will be several presentations on emotional and mental wellness, including a half-day symposium facilitated by the Future Leaders on the morning of Sunday, July 12.

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18 thoughts on “Veterinarians and Mental Health: CDC Results and Resources

  1. Veterinarians also need to have resources available to help mentally ill clients. People with mental illness often turn to animals for companionship because other humans shut them out. Unfortunately, veterinarians are not usually trained on how to deal with such clients. Also, unlike in human medicine, we generally do not have convenient access to mental health professionals such as social workers and psychologists. While there are resources available for clients dealing with the loss of a pet, this is not the issue for every mentally distressed client. I tried searching for resources available for veterinarians on how to deal with clients showing signs of mental illness, but I could not find any. It is very stressful for veterinarians to be unable to reasonably communicate with and help their clients. The AVMA must find a way to provide readily available assistance for veterinarians who are trying to help mentally ill pet owners.

  2. While I don’t pretend to have all the answers as this is a complex issue, I do know that veterinarians and techs and support staff HAVE NOT been trained for dealing with the stressful, emotional and traumatic aspects of the work. Sure you’ve been trained in pharmacology and surgery but not how to manage and cope in healthy ways. You’ve come to this work because you are intrinsically a healer and wish to relieve the suffering of others. There is a “cost of caring” but it doesn’t have to end one’s career of their life. If you are contemplating suicide, PLEASE CALL A PROFESSIONAL.

    I train veterinarians and staff on how to deal with compassion fatigue and how to build resiliency and reconnect with the desire that brought you to the profession in the first place.
    Please reach out if I can help:

  3. May you find peace, serenity and comfort. I’m saddened reading a profession so valued experiences high rates of depression/suicide..I personally THANK each and every one of you. I take for granted your role in my pets life. I will include my vet and others in my day prayers. God bless.

  4. This is actually coming up at the appropriate time. The Veterinary profession need help globally if this menace is to be curtailed. I wonder what future for the profession when the present faces such a dilema. Am so so tired of it all.

  5. Thank you for making us think about it. Y am 52. Y own a pet clinic in argentina. I’ve been working for 28 years. I read about vet suicide statistics some time agi and made me feel I was not alone. I suffer cronic depression, I’ve taken pills and psicologic treatment for 4 years. My life is changing , I ve learned we are not responsable for our depression. The best we can do is get informed, and look for help. I use to talk to younger vets about this , so thay they can understand there feelings are common among we the vets, and ask for help in time. Stoke, suicide and depression are common. Your article is a place for debate and it makes people feel they are not crazy and they are not alone. Thanks again

  6. This could not have come at a better time. I think about this almost every day. I am so tired of hearing just keep going, hang in there I could vomit.

    I just wish I could find someone good in my area to talk to. The crap of day to day practice keeps piling up. Having to work two jobs ( one full time, one part time) to make ends meet, changing schedules , all work and absolutely no play get so old.

    No wonder the rate is so high.

    • Charlene, you might want to try Googling for Psychology Today’s therapist listings. It looks to be a good resource to find a therapist in your area. This isn’t an AVMA endorsement of those listings, but on a personal level I know several people who have used that resource.

  7. I’m posting this at the request of Dr. Timothy McCarthy, who contacted us via email to request that we add this reply.

    Please put in the reply part or in AVMA@Work. This has been published in the Portland VMA and Oregon VMA newsletters.

    Timothy C McCarthy, DVM PhD DEACVS
    I am always saddened by the news of suicide. I have had thoughts of suicide in my life and have been able to get past them. I am now happy, emotionally strong and resilient, and I am thrilled to be alive. At the times of my ideations of suicide, the medical term, I never thought that I could be where I am today. Both times I was at the bottom of a dark pit with no way out. Both times I screamed for help. THERE IS NO SHAME IN SEEKING HELP!!! AND SEEKING HELP DOES NOT MEAN THAT THERE IS ANYTHING WRONG WITH YOU!!!
    The first time was when I was in the middle of a miserable divorce that had been going on for over 2 years, following a miserable marriage, I was not being allowed to see my son, my father passed away after a long illness, my practice was failing (like the whole staff quit one day), and I did not have a meaningful relationship in my life. One evening I found myself sitting in front of the drug cabinet wondering how much more pain I could survive and where was a way out. Fortunately this made me angry and I stayed up all night writing a nasty letter to my attorney. The divorce was settled in a week.
    The second time was when I was being beaten up by a big corporation that was determined to destroy my life. I hit bottom when I was confronted with a notice from their attorney that they were going to start collection proceedings to get the $800,000 judgment against me. They were going to send the Sherriff to take all of our personal possessions including our animals. We could fight to keep one animal worth up to $1000 with enough food for 90 days. We had five horses, three dogs, and three cats. I spent time in a locked psychiatric facility on 24 hour suicide watch.
    I had been seeing a Psychologist since about the time that my divorce started. Everyone will benefit from seeing a Psychologist, let me rephrase that, everyone will benefit from seeing a GOOD Psychologist. I have used two during my career as a patient and both were great. My wife and I still see one of them periodically when we have a difficulty in our relationship or either of us has a problem that we cannot get around. We do not need this often and many times it just one visit.
    I am a different person than I was when I started seeing the first Psychologist. I have a completely different perspective on life than I did before and am able to get through stressful situations much more easily than in my previous life. My episodes of depression and ideations of suicide were situational but were also grounded in chronic depression that I did not recognize as existing.
    If there is depression in your life or overwhelming situational stress GET HELP. I am the poster child for someone who vehemently and stanchly felt and stated “I’m fine I don’t need no stinkin’ help” . Then I decided that I did and I could not get to someone fast enough. I was headed to my 20 year veterinary class reunion and I decided that I did not want to work on the plane. I wandered into the bookstore at the Portland airport. I could not find anything in the “junk” section and gravitated into the self-help section—me? Really? I bought two books. The first one that I read was mostly about communication skills in relationships. The second one was about psychological issues and when we read books like that we can see a little of all/most/some of the pathologies in our behavior so I asked myself the question; Which of these issues are significant and which ones are not? I realized that I could not answer this question and I needed help finding the answer.
    In my first appointment with a Psychologist I unloaded everything that was bothering me. This included things that I did not think that I could ever tell anyone. She just listened. At the end of the hour she stated that I had saved myself about 9 months of therapy because I was ready and she did not have to break down any barriers. I cannot describe what she did, how she did it, or why it worked but I began realizing that I was responding to situations differently and that I was seeing things differently. I began watching myself with great curiosity as things changed. WATCHING MYSELF WITH GREAT CURIOSITY became great fun. The process was a very positive experience. The process was not difficult or depressing or hard work as many believe.
    I learned what drove my temper and was able to reduce it to nothing, or as near nothing as it is possible to get. I found and understood why the relationships that I entered were not where I really wanted to be and I have been with the woman of my dreams for almost 20 years with the a relationship that just keeps getting better and better. I am almost 70 and am having more fun in practice than I have ever had, I am enjoying my clients more than ever, and I am doing new and different procedures all the time. I travel to teach which is rewarding and stimulating. My biggest question right now is, how can I keep practicing forever because I am having too much fun to quit.

  8. Every study always focuses on veterinarians but forgets that there are support staff who are suffering too. I personally know one veterinarian who killed herself but in the past year I have heard of three support staff who have killed themselves. Two actually in their workplace while alone in the building. As a technician, who suffers from mental illness I’d like to see us included.

  9. I too have experience depression secondary to work and post traumatic stress and once I was treated for my condition and no longer had health insurance through my former employer, I attempted to get health insurance thought the AVMA and was denied because of the diagnosis of severe depression! So where does the AVMA health insurance plan stand on supporting and treating veterinarians diagnosed with depression! I was very disappointed when I could not get health insurance after leaving my organization and going into the private sector!

  10. When I graduated in 1968 veterinarians had the lowest suicide rate of all professions. The typical veterinary student was from a rural back ground and was a solid B student with a good family foundation. During the time I was in school this changed to the same profile as the medical students: “A” students with type A personalities mostly from urban backgrounds and then the majority became women due to the selection for grades above everything else The demographics of selection changed from one of individuals used to solving problems with very little resources to one of “if I don’t have the latest and best I can’t do it”. I think this lead to frustrations as well as the amount of hard physical work needed to succeed. Many women want to work part time and raise their families. A noble aspiration but one not calculated to bring excellence into a practice.
    In a nutshell you must consider then demographics of selection.

  11. I’m glad to see I am not alone. People close to me, not in the veterinary profession, tell me to “not take it personally” when clients complain or berate me. I just had a client call the office the other day to “tell me how to diagnose” something that another vet had done, after my work-up. The client declined additional diagnostics due to finances. She wanted a quick fix. I couldn’t even bear listening to her, and yet the fact she called still upset me.
    I’ve only been practicing for 15 years. I have even considered changing professions. It is so sad. I think that prospective veterinarians/students need to be educated on the high dollar student loans, vs the lack of income or personal satisfaction that the profession truly yields. None of this was mentioned in vet school.

  12. I am a psychologist and professor in a school of (human) medicine. We also have a veterinary medicine school at our university. It might be helpful to understand that in the vast majority of cases, depression is the result of ungrieved losses, which THEN lead to chemical imbalances. Current reductionistic behavioral science does not always address this and most people prefer to take a pill rather than address life issues. In my experience many individuals in medicine, both human and animal, do not receive training in how to manage change and loss, how to grieve, how and when to seek help, and what the variables are for thriving and resilience. These are skills that can be learned. I wish they were part of all professional training!

  13. I think it is depressing for a veterinarian when he is not very efficient to do spay and other abdominal surgeries in small animal veterinary practice. People in north America expect you to do those at cheaper price and very efficiently- if you don’t – it is a failure and veterinary medicine becomes very stressful.
    Please do not publish my name or email. I had to struggle hard to obtain ECFVG and running my practice in Sundridge, ON, Canada.

  14. I recently formed The Equine Veterinarian Emergency Fund for help for the equine veterinarian that has suffered a catastrophic work related injury of which work related depression would fall into this category. My husband suffered a brain injury when a horse he was treating fell on him in 2005. He had a cognitive decline and passed away 2/2012. It was very difficult emotionally and financially and involved our small children which complicated the situation. I tried looking for help from all organizations and there was nothing available for the Doc. Right now, this Fund is for the Equine Veterinarian field only but perhaps will broaden as time goes by. Happy to say we have 501c(3) status with the IRS and I hope this will be a banner year in getting the word out!

  15. Years ago I read in a French publication that veterinarians has the highest rate in suicide’s in the
    universe of all professions in the world.
    I am a 75 years old a retired veterinarian of Chile,South America.
    I suffer a mild cronic depression actually.The diagnosis was established about my fifties and in
    and in 1995 I divorced after 26 years of marriage.
    Ever I think about the relation personality background and profesión.
    A few personal conclusión.
    1).-Veterinarians has a High rate of expectatives versus the real posibilities to
    obtain rewards of society or comunities.
    this fact is not concerning material Money or other things.
    2).-Veterinarians also works isolated of others on the sale profesión mostly
    and in hard works conditions.
    Also is very dificult the posibilities of obtain his goals in pratices by. Economic
    reasons.for example working with cattle of a poor farmer.
    A year ago I talked with a chilean doctor in human medicine who worked as
    surgeon for about 20 years in USA.He told me that human medicine students
    some one changed to veterinary medicine option for not afford the pacient
    pressure or relatives of diseased people.But in Medicine are not a High rate
    of suicides.In my student times was a lot of fustrated Young people who
    entre to vet. study as alternative to medicine not admition,but this people
    allways deserted and some finish on a human medicin faculty.
    This is my experience and hope could be usefull to establish the reasons
    back this horrible fact of,suicide prevalence in veterinary medicine practices

  16. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been a technician since 1993 and registered 15 yrs. I’ve suffered from severe depression and being in the career of veterinary medicine can be very difficult physically and mentally. Thanks again for posting all of the useful information.