Veterinarians more likely to consider suicide, Guelph study finds

A new study from the University of Guelph has found veterinarians think about suicide more than the average Canadian — and the situation is especially dire for women in the field. 

Study found women in the field were at especially high risk

New research into the work life of veterinarians suggests that despite loving the profession, they struggle with burnout and anxiety. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

A new study from the University of Guelph has found veterinarians think about suicide more often than the average Canadian— and the situation is especially dire for women in the field. 

The anonymous online survey was conducted by researchers with the Ontario Veterinary College. 

It surveyed about 1,400 veterinarians, or about about 10% of Canadian vets, according to the report. 

The results show an industry struggling with high levels of burnout, anxiety and depression, especially for women. 

It found 17 per cent of respondents had seriously considered suicide since starting veterinary school, compared to about 12 per cent of the rest of Canadians.

"Our patients do suffer disease and die at a much higher rate than humans," said Jennifer Perret, the study's lead author. "We're also going through the grief process with a lot of our clients, and that can also be a big source of secondary trauma."

Women at greater risk 

About three-quarters of respondents to the survey identified as women.

Even with the higher response rate, women in the field reported significantly higher stress, both compared with other Canadian women overall, and with their male colleagues.

Male practitioners, on the other hand, reported less stress than Canadian men generally. 

Age may have something to do with that, said Perret. Older veterinarians, she said, are predominantly male, while younger ones are often women. 

"It could be that older vets have had more time on the block than younger vets," said project supervisor, Andria Jones-Bitton, an associate professor and director of well-being programming at the Ontario Veterinary College. "Or they have left the profession because the stress was that dire."

Perret said, veterinarians often feel trapped between a love of the job and desire to help patients and their clients'  inability to pay for the necessary treatment.

She said they also suffer from "moral or ethical distress."

"This could mean that you're not able to treat a patient that you would like to treat or you're not able to treat them as you would like to treat them," said Perret. "But it can also mean that you are being asked to do something that you don't think is is the right choice."

She said the work can be emotionally challenging as well. 

"Veterinarians have a particular relationship with death and euthanasia because it is something that we deal with on a daily basis," she said. "We may be more likely to see euthanasia as a reasonable outcome when quality of life is poor."

Some potential solutions 

Overall, Perret said, she believes the industry needs to start talking more about work/life balance.

She'd also like to see more pet owners buy insurance to make sure there's money available if costly procedures are necessary to save an animal's life. 

Jones-Bitton said while the study describes many difficulties, she hopes it can be used to help as well. 

"I think it can be somewhat comforting to reassure people that they're not alone, and that there are certainly occupational stressors that contribute to the way that they might be feeling," she said. "I think that's a good thing, but not good enough unless we do something else about it."