My move from veterinary clinical practice to public health practice wasn’t just a matter of changing a job. Working in clinics, I felt that working there was a danger to my well-being. Not so much my physical well-being, though I did get my share of bites and scratches, and when I was still working with large animals a well-placed kick could have landed me in the hospital. I’m speaking of our mental health, our sanity–our souls, if you will.
We may bring our own problems with us wherever we go, but environment, including career choice, may play a role as well. In other words, I was probably at least partially correct. It turns out that vets are 4 times more likely than the general population to commit suicide, and twice as likely as those in other health professions.
The news came out earlier this year in an article in the Veterinary Record, a British peer-reviewed veterinary journal. The article is titled Veterinary surgeons and suicide: a structured review of possible influences on increased risk. (Veterinarians are called veterinary surgeons in the UK).
Here’s the abstract:
Veterinary surgeons are known to be at a higher risk of suicide compared with the general population. There has been much speculation regarding possible mechanisms underlying the increased suicide risk in the profession, but little empirical research. A computerised search of published literature on the suicide risk and influences on suicide among veterinarians, with comparison to the risk and influences in other occupational groups and in the general population, was used to develop a structured review. Veterinary surgeons have a proportional mortality ratio (PMR) for suicide approximately four times that of the general population and around twice that of other healthcare professions. A complex interaction of possible mechanisms may occur across the course of a veterinary career to increase the risk of suicide. Possible factors include the characteristics of individuals entering the profession, negative effects during undergraduate training, work-related stressors, ready access to and knowledge of means, stigma associated with mental illness, professional and social isolation, and alcohol or drug misuse (mainly prescription drugs to which the profession has ready access). Contextual effects such as attitudes to death and euthanasia, formed through the profession’s routine involvement with euthanasia of companion animals and slaughter of farm animals, and suicide ‘contagion’ due to direct or indirect exposure to suicide of peers within this small profession are other possible influences.
From 1999-2006 “intentional self-harm,” known to the rest of us as suicide, was the 11th major cause of death in the United States. (It ranks much higher among the young, especially in the 15-24 year age category.) In high-income countries, the 3rd major cause of disease is depression. People struggling to survive in low-income countries, in spite of being at increased risk for other causes of disease, still carry a burden of depressive disorders that cause them to rank 7th overall as in causes of illness. However, you look at it, one’s own brain is capable of ruining or taking the life of the organism that supports it. This is not weakness, or a lack of character, any more than cancer is the moral fault of a person’s immune system to fail and recognize a danger created from within.