“Suicide rates among vets are alarmingly high. Here’s one explanation I’d never heard.”

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It’s no secret veterinarians have one of the highest rates of suicide of any profession.

Australian studies show vets die by suicide at four times the rate of the general population, and recently, Dr Allison Milner and colleagues from the University of Melbourne found females are particularly at risk.

For decades, researchers have tried to discern the complex reasons why suicide strikes the veterinary community so strongly.

In a recent article for ViceDr Rosie Allister, who works for a wellbeing charity for vets in the UK called Vetlife, discussed the crisis of suicide in the veterinary profession and the factors that may contribute to it.

Veterinarians have one of the highest rates of suicide of any profession. (iStock)

She said while it's inherently problematic to try to identify single reasons for mental health issues and suicide, there are elements of the wider picture we can consider and interrogate.

Dr Allister said financial pressure is an often-ignored burden in the veterinary community. Given vet fees are so high, people tend to assume they're highly paid - but this is rarely the case.

Vets' salaries in Australia are modest — they make an average of $79,000, which is below the national average.

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In addition, Dr Allister said, "Sometimes there's an expectation that you should be able to provide veterinary care for free because you love animals or because you care about them," but this places huge stress on a veterinarian.

Listen to the Mamamia Outloud team discuss the complexities of reporting suicide in the media. Post continues after audio. 

Dr Allister also acknowledged the emotional toll of euthanising pets, but it was a slightly more nuanced element of the work of a veterinarian that struck me as particularly important.

"Euthanising animals is part of our work and always will be," said Dr Allister.

"The idea that has been talked about [in the research] is that [as vets] we see euthanasia sometimes as a positive thing. We see euthanasia as relieving suffering, as a solution sometimes to intractable problems.

"The argument was that – to vets – death is then normalised as a solution to problems."

She explained that sometimes when you talk to vets who are experiencing suicidal thoughts, they will compare themselves to animals.

"They say things like, 'If I was a dog I would've considered euthanasia' when they're talking about their own mental health issues," said Dr Allister.

This was a reality of the veterinary profession I had never considered. Putting animals down is sad, of course, but does it also encourage vets to ascribe a certain meaning to voluntary death? Does it reinforce death as an option?

Image via iStock.

I spoke to Dr Alison Milner from the University of Melbourne about whether this could be one of the reasons the suicide rate among vets is so high. She said it's definitely one possible explanation, and agreed that vets become used to seeing death as a solution to an animals' suffering, and might then extrapolate that idea to themselves.

"With animals, it's black and white," she said.

Dr Milner did, however, point out that the theory is incredibly difficult to measure, and emphasised a number of other factors she believes contribute to the high suicide rates among vets.

For example, she said that at university, "vets train to help animals," but once they enter the workforce, "a large part of their job is talking to people" - an emotional strain they don't foresee when they enter the workforce. Another unexpected element for many vets is that often, a major component of their career is essentially running a business - a challenge they aren't necessarily prepared for.

Mental health services in Australia. Post continues after gallery. 

Of particular interest to Dr Milner is the gender disparity when it comes to the rates of suicide among vets, and medical practitioners in general.

Her research has found suicide rates for female health professionals (e.g. vets, doctors, midwives) is significantly higher than for women in the general population, whereas for men this isn't the case. She therefore wants to further investigate elements of the work environment that might uniquely affect women.

Indeed, Dr Milner's research has shown that while veterinarians experience elevated mental health issues and are more likely to die by suicide, it does seem to be a trend observed in several medical professions.

The problem, therefore, might be broader than it first appears. Nonetheless, I remain fascinated with how certain experiences might influence a person's ideas about suffering, and how to cope with it.

If you or someone you know needs help you can call Lifeline on 131 114, the Black Dog Institute on 9382 2991, or Beyondblue 1300 224 636.

The Australian Veterinary Association also provides a 24/7 telephone counselling service on 1800 337 068.

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