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Suicide Awareness for Veterinarians: A Troubling Problem in Our Industry

Posted by Positive Impressions on Jun 18th 2020

Working at a veterinary office is one of the most rewarding jobs you can have, but it’s also incredibly hard. Burnout, high medical debt, compassion fatigue and long work weeks take their toll. Unfortunately, these stresses have lead to high suicide rates among veterinarians, technicians and technologists. How are organizations like the AVMA helping reduce the risk? What can you do to make sure your co-workers are getting the care they need, and what can you do to take care of yourself?

A Troubling Study

In a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, administrators looked at National Violent Death Reporting System records from 2003-2014. This reporting system includes demographic information on all suicides committed in the United States. Through this study, they found veterinary professionals were at a much higher risk of committing suicide than the general population, and these victims often didn’t show warning signs associated with suicide risk.

Among veterinarians, males were 1.6 times more likely to commit suicide than the general population, while females were 2.4 times more likely to do so. Male veterinary technicians and technologists were 5 times more likely to commit suicide, while females were 2.3 times more likely to do so. However, veterinary assistants and lab animal caretakers did not have a higher suicide rate than the general population.

Of these cases, poisoning was the most common cause of death, and Pentobarbital, used for pet euthanasia, was the most common drug used. This drug was mostly used at home. When Pentobarbital use was excluded, male and female rates of suicide were similar.

Veterinarians are significantly less likely than technicians or technologists to have a history of suicide attempts beforehand. 30% disclosed suicidal intent, 55% had previously received mental health treatment, and 42% were under mental health or substance abuse treatment at the time of death.

While we don’t know any specific causes for this increased risk, there are a number of possible factors. In a CDC survey referenced by the suicide study, 9% of veterinary professionals had serious psychological distress, 31% had depressive episodes, and 17% had suicidal ideation between entering the workforce and now. In a related AVMA study, they found that one in 5 vets were cyberbullied, or had a colleague that was cyberbullied. Veterinarians are also stressed financially, with the average graduate starting their career with $150,000 of student debt. This is on top of other factors that are hard to pin down statistically, like burn-out and compassion fatigue.

Reducing Drug-Related Suicides

Overall, physicians are more likely to use drugs to commit suicide among physicians, but the rate is even higher among vets. This is possibly due to more lax controls on veterinary drugs. Organizations like the CDC are approaching veterinary drug use the same way they have approached human drug use.

Suggested measures include requiring two signatures to access Pentobarbital, and decreasing access at pharmacies and clinics to prevent veterinarians from taking the drug home. Increased controls may be applied to opiods and other drugs that could be used as a substitute.

EAPs: Creating a Network of Employee Support

Clinics are increasingly turning to Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) to help their employees with mental issues. EAP services take a holistic view to mental health, providing counseling services for everything from drug abuse treatment to retirement planning. The goal of these programs is to encourage employees to get help when they first need it, keeping them from developing serious problems later on. Supervisors can recommend the program to employees, or the employee can choose to use these services confidentially. While larger clinics may administer an EAP in-house, third party providers are available, putting these services within reach of small clinics.

For these programs to be effective, employees need to be reminded that these services are available. If an employee hears about the program while they’re facing problems, they’re more likely to use these services. Likewise, it helps if employees can identify warning signs and suggest services to those in need. Withdrawal, irritability, fatigue, poor performance, and a pattern of lateness or absence are early signs of serious problems. Training is available to help employees identify these signs, including a one hour course from the AVMA.

Strategies for Reducing Burn Out

Overworking can make home and work life blend together, increasing stress and burnout. Clinics and employees can apply these strategies to get a break when they need one, while staying connected with friends and family:

- Get a locum tenens to fill in when a break is needed.

- Adopt a flexible work schedule, allowing employees to trade hours with each other.

- Plan in advance for days off, so that you can be off for important family events, like birthdays

Making Your Marketing a Little Easier

On a lighter note, if you’re looking for new ways to market your clinic, consider Positive Impressions, LLC. We offer a variety of products, including reminder cards, pharmacy labels and pens that you can use to promote your veterinary clinic. Most of our items can be custom printed, letting you add clinic information or use your own photos.See how we can help your connect with your clients by visiting our website to see what we offer, or check out our Facebook page to see our latest specials.

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