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Large-animal veterinary suicide risk exaggerated

Vonschonertagen/GettyImages Stressed veterinarian
Although a recent study showed high stress among veterinarians, other data show it's not necessarily true for large-animal vets.
Merck veterinary study shows lower risk among large-animal vets, but slightly higher risk in young vets.

A study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association recently listed the risk of suicide among veterinarians considerably higher than for the general U.S. population.

Specifically, it reported female veterinarians were 3.5 times as likely, and male veterinarians were 2.1 times as likely, to die from suicide as the general population. For perspective, a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said  45,000 Americans, ages 10 or older, died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States and is on the rise. 

However, another survey from 2018 shows this is not the case for large-animal veterinarians. The Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study, released late last year, showed stress and/or mental illness among these veterinarians is similar to, but slightly lower than that found in the general population.

However, the Merck study showed stress was higher in younger members of the profession, particularly with regard to debt levels.

The Merck study used the Kessler 6 (K6) scale, a six-question survey which is called a quantifier of "non-specific psychological distress." Distress is symptomatic of risk for suicide.

Researchers added that overall wellbeing of large-animal veterinarians is slightly lower than in the general population, and that about half of those who are feeling stress are not receiving treatment.

In summary, the Merck study concluded veterinary medicine is not in a state of crisis. About one in 20 veterinarians is suffering serious psychological distress.

Employer recommendations to help lower stress

The mental health professionals involved in the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study recommended four actions for veterinary employers.

  1. Educate employees on the existence of mental health issues and provide time off for appointments with physicians and counselors.
  2. Outwardly discuss and set healthy practice expectations for work/life balance.
  3. Create mentoring programs for new employees to help them gain the skills and confidence need to perform satisfactorily in their career.
  4. Consider partnering with in-practice veterinary social work professionals

Personal recommendations to lower stress

The mental health professionals involved in the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study recommended three actions for veterinarians.

  1. With the help of a mental health professional or coach develop a stress management plan.
  2. Retain a certified financial planner to develop a plan to manage finances and student debt.
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