For many veterinarians, the stigma associated with mental illness is an important barrier not just to accessing mental health services but to even discussing the topic in the first place. According to the results of a 2012 study of U.K. veterinarians with a history of suicidal thoughts or behaviour, half the participants had not talked with anyone about their problems, because they felt guilty or ashamed (Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol 2012;47:223-240).
A fairly recent structured review by Dr. David J. Bartram and others (Veterinary Record 2010;166:388-397) found that the veterinary profession has around three to four times the rate of suicide that would be expected in the general population, and around twice that reported for other health care professionals. Although the review focused on the U.K. veterinary population, the study's list of risk factors for suicide sounds familiar: characteristics of individuals entering the profession; negative effects during undergraduate training; work-related stressors; ready access to, and knowledge of, means; stigma associated with mental illness; professional and social isolation; and alcohol or drug misuse. Attitudes about death and euthanasia, and suicide contagion (due to direct or indirect exposure to suicide of peers) are other possible influences.
Dr. Bartram, in an interview with JAVMA News, expanded on how veterinarians' personalities can sometimes be a liability.
"They're a self-selecting group of people for whom the frequency of people with personality traits such as neuroticism and conscientiousness and perfectionism are likely to be elevated. Populations of high achievers are likely to have a higher proportion of people with these personality traits, which we know can be risk factors for mental health problems," said Dr. Bartram, who is on the board of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund.
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