The American Veterinary Medical Assn. (AVMA) assisted the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) in researching "Suicide among Veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015."
The study, published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, found that 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, AVMA said in an announcement. According to a 2016 CDC report, 45,000 Americans ages 10 or older died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in the U.S. and is on the rise, AVMA said.
Every profession has unique challenges and stressors that must be addressed. Just as veterinarians are passionate about their profession and dedicated to improving the health and welfare of people and animals, AVMA said it is committed to the health and well-being of its members.
Prior to the release of this and other studies, AVMA and a broad coalition of partners from industry, state and allied veterinary medical associations, academia (American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges), representatives of private and corporate practices, the North American Veterinary Technicians Assn., practice managers, the Veterinary Information Network (VIN), independent veterinary communities and others joined together to tackle this issue.
"Too many of our colleagues have either contemplated, attempted or died by suicide, and one suicide is clearly too many," AVMA president Dr. John de Jong said. "Working with our colleagues throughout the veterinary community will help us find solutions more quickly. This issue is affecting not only our profession but society as a whole in numbers greater than ever before."
In addition to partners within veterinary medicine, AVMA is working closely with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other suicidology experts.
"As medical professionals, we need to understand and learn about the clinical signs associated with suicide and work with other medical professionals to confront and combat this serious problem," de Jong said.
AVMA and partners are creating and developing resources not only for those in distress but for those who love and want to help those who are suffering. AVMA said a key program available to help veterinarians identify and refer at-risk colleagues is QPR (question, persuade, refer) training. AVMA is offering this hour-long online "gatekeeper training" free of charge to every member and veterinary student. It teaches people without professional mental health backgrounds to recognize the signs that someone may be considering suicide and helps them establish a dialogue.
"Oftentimes, people may suspect someone is suffering, but they don't know what to say or they worry that what they say may make the situation worse," said Dr. Jen Brandt, AVMA director of member well-being and diversity. "It is my goal to have every veterinarian complete the QPR training. It provides guidance on what to say and ways in which you can enhance a sense of belonging and help alleviate the sense of fear that some may have about being a burden to their friends, family or colleagues."
Programs and tools available to tackle specific stressors include:
* Moral/ethical distress — The result of a medical caregiver's unique relationship with a patient through which empathy allows the caregiver to "take on the burden" of an ill or dying patient. AVMA has collected and developed a number of resources to help veterinarians combat moral/ethical distress.
* Financial burdens — These can also play a part in harming veterinarians' mental health. With average student debt loads on the rise, veterinarians may be struggling to make ends meet and find it difficult to plan for the future. AVMA has resources on financial planning — including a personal financial planning tool, salary calculator and tips on student loan repayment — to help veterinarians address these concerns.
* Availability of controlled substances — The potential for drug abuse and addiction is higher in medical professions than in other workplaces because of the increased access to controlled drugs. To address these issues, AVMA has developed an online well-being and peer assistance toolkit.
* Student debt and other early career stressors — MyVeterinaryLife.com is a website aimed at students and early-career veterinarians that's geared to helping them navigate well-being, finances and career concerns.
* AVMA's "100 Healthy Tips to Support a Culture of Wellbeing" — This guide offers strategies and practical steps one can take at work and at home to support healthful living and create a positive work environment.
* Peer assistance programs — Such programs around the country can be found at veterinary peer assistance programs.
* Veterinary well-being summits — These summits provide veterinary practitioners, as well as those in industry, academia, researchers and others, an opportunity to discuss what steps should be taken to support enhanced well-being throughout the profession.
* Educational efforts — Numerous educational efforts through public speaking and webinars aimed at creating cultures of well-being are ongoing.
AVMA said it is working with the U.K.'s Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the World Small Animal Veterinary Assn. to improve the health and well-being of all those who work on veterinary teams across the globe.
"This truly is a profession-wide concern," de Jong said. "We know that we don't have all of the answers, but there is strength and hope in such a strong industry-wide collaboration."