I briefly let go of my dream of becoming a veterinarian while in my late teens.
Caving to pressure from well-meaning but ill-informed people, I shifted my career objectives from veterinary medicine to human dentistry.
Luckily for me, after a few years in the dark, I was finally able to tune out the nay-sayers and pursue my passion — although I still have a fascination with teeth.
Interestingly, many of the same people commented on my dental pursuits by informing me that dentists have the highest suicide rates of all the health professions. In fact, they were wrong again.
Veterinarians are four times more likely to take their own lives than people in the general population and twice as likely as other health professionals, including pharmacists, dentists and physicians, according to a recent British study.
Similar results have been found in studies from the United States, Australia and Europe.
Given that women in the general public are at a higher risk of depression and anxiety disorders than men, it is not surprising that a few studies have identified women vets as being at higher risk than male vets.
With the changing demographics of the profession from primarily male to primarily female, the impact of mental health disease is anticipated to increase.
Why are veterinarians at increased risk?
Research into the mental health of veterinarians is ongoing, but several contributing factors have been suggested.
People who choose to enter the profession may be predisposed to mental health disease.
A 2012 study of Alabama veterinarians found that two-thirds of practicing veterinarians had suffered from clinical depression.
Furthermore, a quarter had contemplated suicide since graduation from veterinary school.
Stress relating to veterinary education may be partially to blame. Evidence suggests veterinary students are at extremely high risk of suffering from depression and anxiety.
Veterinary school is no walk in the park. Countless long-term relationships ended among my classmates, and burnout and stress were high.
Little changes in private practice, where new graduates often begin their careers already emotionally and sometimes physically depleted. I briefly worked at a practice where one of the partner veterinarians bragged about how many hours he worked and that his wife raised their children.
Unfortunately, this lack of work-life balance is all too common in our profession.
Other possible predisposing factors that have been identified include stress in life and practice, drug and alcohol abuse, comfort with and knowledge about euthanasia, isolation and societal stigma attached to mental health.
Perfectionism can lead to significant stress in practice.
Dr. Brian Goodman recently told a TED Talks conference that medical doctors are expected to bat 1,000, while baseball players who bat 400 make it into the hall of fame.
In other words, the expectation is physicians will make no mistakes. Veterinarians often face the same pressure to be perfect. Remember, vets are only human.
Veterinarians not only have access to drugs and techniques but also have a high level of comfort with euthanasia. While the James Herriot version of veterinary medicine dominates the perception of what veterinarians do, keep in mind we are trained to kill animals and unfortunately, we do it often.
Fortunately, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association and the provincial associations are noticing the disturbing trend toward mental health issues and are taking action. Many provincial associations provide their members with anonymous access to psychologists, and the CVMA has created a task force to investigate and attempt to aid this problem.
Formed in 2010, the CVMA Task force on Member Wellness surveyed Canadian vets to gauge the burden of mental health issues. It found that 19 percent had seriously contemplated suicide and half had experienced burnout.
An elective class that teaches mindfulness is a novel approach to stress reduction at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine. The technique has been demonstrated in numerous demographics to aid with stress reduction. This is the first time it has been formally used in veterinary medical education, but the results are en-couraging. The college offered a similar course for practicing veterinarians this past fall.
My purpose in writing this column is not to make you feel guilty about calling your vet at 2 a.m. for an emergency caesarean section, although you probably should feel guilty if the animal has been in labour since dinner time.
Rather, my intention is to bring awareness to the issues of mental health and suicide in the profession.