September is National Suicide Prevention Month, a month for our entire country to focus on mental health and suicide prevention. While suicide is always a hot topic within the veterinary profession, September is a good time for all of us to take a moment and focus on this issue.
A 2019 study found that the suicide risk in veterinary technicians is significantly higher than the general population and even higher than the risk in veterinarians. The risk of suicide in male vet techs is 5.0 times higher than the suicide risk in the general population, while the risk in female vet techs is 2.3 times higher than the general population.1 Clearly, this is a significant issue!
Why is the suicide rate in vet med so high?
No one knows exactly why suicide is more prevalent in the veterinary field. There are several different factors that may come into play:
- Different views on euthanasia/suicide: Because we are accustomed to offering euthanasia for our patients when they are suffering or experiencing a poor quality of life, those of us in the veterinary field may have a different perspective on suicide than the rest of the population.2
- Personality characteristics: Veterinary medicine and other animal-related fields tend to attract people with certain personality characteristics, such as extreme empathy and a deep bond with animals. It’s possible that these characteristics predispose us to suicide.2 Those of us who work in the veterinary field may be predisposed to suicide even if we were working in another profession.
- Workplace stresses: While vet med certainly has its highlights, there’s no doubt that it can also be a stressful field. Factors such as challenging cases, poor outcomes, difficult clients, financial euthanasias, long days on our feet, and other stresses may contribute to the high rate of suicide in this field.2
- Financial stress: Unfortunately, vet techs are underpaid in many practices. Many vet techs also have student loans from their vet tech education. For these individuals, financial stress may negatively affect mental health.
Although we’ll probably never have a definitive explanation for suicide rates in the veterinary field, these factors all likely contribute to some degree and the true underlying cause is probably a combination of these factors.
How can I get help for myself and my colleagues?
If you or a colleague is struggling with mental health or thoughts of suicide, there are many resources that can help.
The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) has a Well Being Task Force, dedicated specifically to promoting physical and mental health in vet techs. They produce content specifically related to well being, which can be helpful when dealing with common stresses associated with the profession.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) also has resources available for veterinary team members. These can be accessed on the AVMA website, in the section titled Get Help. This page contains links to a number of different mental health resources, some of which are veterinary-specific and some of which are geared towards the general public. Your state veterinary medical association (VMA) may also offer mental health resources for veterinarians and vet techs.
In addition to these resources, don’t underestimate the importance of one-on-one support. Friends and family can be a valuable support network, so be sure that you are setting aside time to connect with them (although that is definitely more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic!). A licensed mental health professional can also be a valuable resource during times of mental stress. If your schedule prohibits in-person counseling, consider online counseling, which can often be done on the evenings or weekends.
Finally, if you or someone you know is in a state of crisis, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. This hotline consists of a national network of crisis centers, which have come together to offer 24/7 support to individuals in crisis.3
Take care of yourself
As a vet tech, you are likely a compassionate individual who cares immensely about animals and their welfare. This can make it really easy to throw yourself into your work, to the exclusion of all else. Avoid that temptation! Make sure that you take time, during school and as you begin your career, for hobbies, interests, relationships, and yourself. Achieving a successful work/life balance isn’t easy, but it may help you be a bit more resilient when life throws its inevitable challenges your way.
- Witte TK, Spitzer EG, Edwards N, Fowler KA, Nett RJ. Suicides and deaths of undetermined intent among veterinary professionals from 2003 through 2014. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2019;255(5):595-608. doi:10.2460/javma.255.5.595
- Stoewen DL. Suicide in veterinary medicine: let's talk about it. Can Vet J. 2015;56(1):89-92.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Retrieved from: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/