Study: Veterinarians, people who treat animals face higher risk of mental health issues

CHICAGO — Spending all day surrounded by dogs and cats probably sounds like heaven for many people, but a new study finds that veterinarians and others who work with animals on a daily basis deal with stressful and emotional events that put them at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and, in some cases, suicidal thoughts.

“People who work or volunteer with animals are often drawn to it because they see it as a personal calling,” says Dr. Angela K. Fournier of Bemidji State University in a statement. “However, they are faced with animal suffering and death on a routine basis, which can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue and mental health issues.”

Data collected between 1979-2015 found that veterinarians are at a particularly high risk of suicide, with vets taking their own lives two to 3.5 times more often than the general population. Besides frequently dealing with animal suffering and death, researchers noted that financial stress may be contributing to the high rate of suicides among vets. For example, the average veterinarian graduates from school with an average of $143,000 in student loan debt, but most vets start out earning a starting salary of around $73,000 annually.

On top of financial concerns, many vets deal with suspicions from their own clients; it’s very common for pet owners to accuse vets of gouging them for money by recommending unnecessary medical procedures on their animals.

Researchers looked into the childhood experiences of many veterinary students as well, in an effort to determine if negative childhoods play a role in the high rate of mental health problems among vets. However, they found that vets were no more likely to experience depression than anyone else prior to starting on the job.

“This indicates that something is happening over the course of veterinary student training or once veterinarians are working to cause poor well-being outcomes,” comments Katherine Goldberg, community consultation and intervention specialist at Cornell Health and founder of Whole Animal Veterinary Geriatrics and Palliative Care Services. “Well-being education should be integrated into the veterinary curriculum, emphasizing resiliency behaviors and cultivating professional partnerships between veterinary medicine and mental health care.”

It’s worth noting that veterinary medicine is the only medical job in the United States that does not have a monitoring program looking out for substance abuse and mental problems, meaning that there may be a number of warning signs that researchers just aren’t seeing.

Goldberg and her colleagues suggest that vets must be better educated on how to cope with both the emotional side effects of dealing with sick and dying animals everyday and the unpleasantness of some pet owners who may not like the diagnosis their pet is given.

“We need core curricular material that focuses on coping with the emotional demands of the profession. Mindfulness, moral stress, ethics literacy, grief and bereavement, mental health first aid and suicide awareness all have a role in veterinary education” Goldberg elaborates.

It’s not just vets, either. Animal welfare agents, defined by researchers as animal shelter volunteers and activists, were also found to be in need of mental health treatment. People working in these settings routinely experience animal suffering, may have to personally euthanize animals, and often must witness the effects of animal abuse.

“Experts suggest that animal welfare agents carry an even heavier burden than those in other helping professions who are susceptible to compassion fatigue because of the issues unique to working with animals, such as euthanasia and caring for living beings who have experienced pain and suffering but cannot articulate their needs and experiences,” Fournier says.

The study was presented at the 2019 American Psychological Association convention.

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