To any outsider looking in, Dr. Steve Noonan appeared to have it all. The Canadian vet had a loving family, a flourishing career, and a resume that would be the envy of even the most distinguished of vets.
Yet, standing on his hotel balcony high above the San Diego marina, Steve, a man who had everything to live for – felt compelled by voices in his head to end his life.
Though Steve, through learning about his Bipolar disorder was able to recover (click below to listen to his story), some are not so fortunate.
Female vets are 2.4 times more likely to commit suicide compared to the average person, whereas male vets were 1.6 more so1. Between the years 1979 and 2015, almost 400 veterinarians (mostly men) died by their hand, whereas, between the years 2000 to 2015, roughly 10% of deaths among female vets were due to the same cause2.
Although much has been done to try and tackle the veterinary mental health crisis, it persists.
The real question is, why?
The Root Causes Of The Veterinary Mental Health Crisis
Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.
But what are the factors driving this mental health crisis? The research in this area is as shocking as it is insightful.
Veterinarians have reported widespread ethical conflict and moral distress across several practice types and demographics. These moral dilemmas and burdens are further exacerbated by the lack of training on how to deal with them (struggling with emotional fatigue? read this).
The inability to cope with these circumstances can cause a great deal of distress for veterinarians, who are at risk of spiraling down into suicidal thoughts without proper intervention3.
Personality factors may also play a role in the mental well-being of veterinary professionals.
Whilst veterinarians are often faced with long hours and social isolation, many are also by their nature perfectionistic and achievement orientated (traits all associated with an increased risk for suicide). Many vets also have a preference for being around animals (rather than humans), perhaps deeming them vulnerable to communication mishaps and stressors.
These predisposing factors, alongside the fact that many vets have access to lethal drugs (like barbiturates), can create a deadly combination. Studies have found that the use of poison is common in veterinary suicide, particularly amongst female vets4.
Other factors, such as regular exposure to death, high levels of student debt (learn here how to manage it), and cyberbullying (almost one in five veterinarians have been cyberbullied by pet owners online) may also influence the high rates of mental health problems in vets5.
Veterinary Mental Health Statistics: The Stark Reality
Although it is evident that many vets are vulnerable to an array of mental health conditions, what does this look like numerically?
In a survey of 11,000 vets across the US, researchers found that: 9% of participants were (at least at the time) struggling with high levels of physiological distress; 31% had experienced a depressive episode at some stage in their careers; 17% had suffered from suicidal ideation6.
In the UK, one British Veterinary Association (BVA) survey found that a third of vets had significant concerns about their mental health7.
Another study looking at German veterinary professionals discovered that 27.78% of the sampled population screened positive for depressive symptoms. Within this group, 17.45% displayed moderate symptoms of depression – significantly higher than the average population prevalence8.
Further studies have also discovered links between client satisfaction and veterinary mental health. Although the relationship is complex, models have indicated that vets with poor mental health outcomes have higher levels of client satisfaction, and vice-versa. Although the reasons for this are unclear, this may be because more empathetic veterinarians tend to have better client relationships, alongside higher levels of burnout/compassion fatigue9.
The pandemic has only worsened an already troubling situation.
Vetlife Helpline, a UK mental health support service for veterinary professionals, received 1,136 contacts in the first three months of 2020, a vast contrast to the 685 previously documented back in 2019. Considering that there are 20,000 active vets in the UK, this is alarming.
But this surge is not an isolated occurrence. Vetlife has been receiving a steady increase of contacts over the last 28-years, painting a larger, and grimmer picture10.
Veterinary Student Mental Health Statistics
Veterinary students do not fare too well either.
Studies have found that students not only experience higher levels of stress compared to their non-veterinary counterparts but experience higher levels of depression too. One study at an Australian university found that 50% of veterinary students reported symptoms of depression. Further, a BVA study found that 27% of veterinary students in the UK and Ireland had actively suffered from depression during their studies.
Additionally, A large-scale study of 1245 North American veterinary students discovered that 66% of respondents experienced mild to moderate levels of depression. Reports have also indicated a high prevalence of students engaging in self-harm, one study finding that of 573 vets students in the US, 24% had harmed themselves and 30% had seriously contemplated suicide11.
The Light At The End of The Tunnel
Whilst it can be easy to fixate on these bleak statistics, much is being done within the veterinary community to remedy this situation.
Many universities are instituting programs to help support veterinary students throughout their studies, such as through initiatives such as Mind Matters12.
Veterinary organizations such as the BVA and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) host a plethora of resources on their sites for struggling vets13 14.
At VetX International we also provide mentorship and training for vets on how to handle the stressors of practice life. A key focus of the Thrive course is to educate professionals on the emotional and communicative skills needed to function in practice (to try out our free Thrive Lite course, click here).
Frank conversations need to be had in the veterinary community about mental health.
Although the subject is less taboo than it used to be, 75.5% of veterinary students are still opposed to others knowing about their mental illness, compared to 41% of the general population15.
Having a mental illness does not make you weak, or a lesser person. It is a condition that forms in one of the most complex and misunderstood parts of the body – the brain. We could all benefit from having more compassion for each other, and accept mental health as a common ailment of life that should be treated – not neglected.
If this is a subject that is affecting you personally, know that you are not alone. You do not deserve to suffer in silence, and there are people out there who want to help you.
Here are several resources that may be of use:
If you are in the UK, Vetlife (a dedicated service for veterinary professionals struggling with their mental health) has an email service as well as a hotline you can access here.
Additionally, services for those struggling can be observed here on the NHS website.
If you are in the US, this resource from the AVMA has a list of hotlines and charities which may be helpful.
The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) also has resources and a contact number that you can utilize here.
Note: We would like to thank the lovely Dr. Steve Noonan, who has done so much for us and others in the veterinary community. We hope his story inspires you as much as it has inspired us.
Give Steve a little love by checking out his business Lochland Botanicals, a pick-your-own herb and produce farm in rural Halton county, Canada here. You can also check out his mindfulness coaching services @drstevemindfulcoach on Instagram.
1- ‘Special Report: Auburn-CDC study examines frequency and means ….’ 20 Aug. 2019, https://www.avma.org/news/press-releases/special-report-auburn-cdc-study-examines-frequency-and-means-suicide-among. Accessed 7 May. 2021.
2- ‘Veterinarians Face Disproportionately High Suicide Rates, Study Says.’ 20 Dec. 2018, https://time.com/5485552/veterinarians-suicide/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
3- ‘Ethical conflict and moral distress in veterinary practice: A survey of ….’ 15 Oct. 2018, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30320478/. Accessed 4 May. 2021.
4- ‘Suicide in physicians and veterinarians: risk factors and theories ….’ 24 Jul. 2017, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2352250X17301884. Accessed 4 May. 2021.
5- ‘Behavioral health and sleep problems among US Army … – PubMed.’ 1 Apr. 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33754822/. Accessed 4 May. 2021.
6- ‘Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through ….’ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6417412/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
7- ‘Report of the survey of the BVA ‘Voice of the Profession’ Panel ….’ https://www.vetfutures.org.uk/resource/report-of-the-survey-of-the-bva-voice-of-the-profession-panel/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
8- ‘Depression, suicidal ideation and suicide risk in German … – PubMed.’ 2 May. 2020, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32229508/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
9- ‘The Complex Relationship Between Veterinarian Mental Health and ….’ 25 Feb. 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7052013/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
10- ‘The Truth about Wellbeing within the Veterinary Profession – Vet ….’ 5 Oct. 2020, https://vethelpdirect.com/vetblog/2020/10/05/the-truth-about-wellbeing-within-the-veterinary-profession/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
11- ‘Depression, stress and self-stigma towards seeking … – PubMed.’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33880748/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
12- ‘HOME – Mind Matters.’ https://www.vetmindmatters.org/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
13- ‘Wellbeing resources for veterinary ….’ https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/wellbeing. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
14- ‘Supporting #TeamVet’s mental health during lockdown.’ 13 Jan. 2021, https://www.bva.co.uk/news-and-blog/blog-article/supporting-teamvets-mental-health-during-lockdown/. Accessed 8 May. 2021.
15- ‘Suicidality in the veterinary profession: interview study of … – PubMed.’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22713972/. Accessed 4 May. 2021.