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CDC reports elevated suicide rates among veterinarians

Federal officials call for a collaborative effort to tackle the issue.

CDC reports elevated suicide rates among veterinarians

A new study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that suicide rates for U.S. veterinarians are much higher than those of the general population.

The study examined 36 years of death records covering 11,620 veterinarians to conclude that female veterinarians were 3.5 times and male veterinarians 2.1 times as likely to die from suicide.

“Our findings suggest mortality from suicide among veterinarians has been high for some time, spanning the entire 36-year period we studied,” said CDC director Robert R. Redfield, M.D. “This study shines a light on a complex issue in this profession. Using this knowledge, we can work together to reduce the number of suicides among veterinarians.”

The veterinary industry in recent years has addressed what many experts assert is a mental health crisis exacerbated by financial struggles, a poor work-life balance, compassion fatigue, depression and other factors.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, for example, offers a personal well-being toolkit at http://bit.ly/2T2kk3J. The North American Veterinary Community, publisher of Today’s Veterinary Business, will host “You Matter,” a series of health and well-being events, at its VMX conference in January 2019.

John Howard, M.D., director of the National Center for Health Statistics, said more work remains to be done.

“Collaboration among multiple stakeholders in the profession such as professional associations, veterinary schools and suicide prevention experts could help contribute to an effective and comprehensive suicide-prevention strategy within the profession,” Dr. Howard said.

The CDC study counted 398 veterinarian deaths by suicide from 1975 to 2015. Seventy-five percent of the victims worked in small animal practice, the most popular workplace among veterinarians.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given a practitioner’s familiarity with medications, 37 percent of the deaths were caused by a drug overdose. The number was 2.5 times higher than in the general population.

The CDC study, published in the Jan. 1, 2019, issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, did not explore suicide attempts.

An unrelated research project, the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study, reported in early 2018 that 1.6 percent of veterinarians had attempted suicide, a rate lower than that of the general population.

“We would speculate that even if suicide attempts were no higher among veterinarians, the suicide rate could conceivably be higher than the general population simply because they have the tools at their disposal,” co-investigator John Volk said. “For example, we would expect the success of suicide attempts to be higher among people like physicians, veterinarians and dentists simply because of their access to lethal drugs and their knowledge of how to calculate dosages.”

AVMA President John de Jong, DVM, called suicide “a profession-wide concern.”

“Too many of our colleagues have either contemplated, attempted or died by suicide,” Dr. de Jong said. “And one suicide is clearly too many. Working with our colleagues throughout the veterinary community will help us find solutions more quickly. This issue is affecting not only our profession, but society as a whole in numbers greater than ever before.

“As medical professionals, we need to understand and learn about the clinical signs associated with suicide and work with other medical professionals to confront and combat this serious problem.”

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