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A number of studies have identified that veterinarians appear to be at a significantly higher risk of suicide than the general population. While other health care professionals such as doctors, pharmacists, dentists and nurses are around twice as likely to commit suicide than the general population, veterinarians have been shown to be up to four times more likely to fall victim to suicide.
An Australian study of deaths of veterinarians in Western Australia and Victoria indicated suicide rates approximately four times that of the adult population. Another paper has reported high levels of negative emotions experienced by veterinarians at work when compared to the general population, but similar levels to other professional groups.
In everyday terms, most veterinarians know a colleague or know of a fellow veterinarian who has committed suicide. The suicide rate of men is four times that of women in the general population, and studies of the veterinary profession indicate that this is true for veterinarians as well
Common causes of stress for veterinarians include working more than 50 hours per week, dealing with difficult clients, and problems with interpersonal relationships. Sources of stress for veterinary students and recent graduates may be quite different from those experienced by established veterinarians, however research is limited on this.
How can we tell if someone is a suicide risk?
Many people who attempt or commit suicide show signs beforehand. If we can recognise people who are depressed and at risk of committing suicide, we have the opportunity to intervene with the best chance of a positive outcome. Be aware that 25% of suicides do not show signs before they make an attempt.
- Any of the symptoms of depression
- Anyone who speaks actively of suicide should be considered at risk
- Recent loss - divorce, separation or relationship breakdown, death of family or friend, retirement, loss of job, money, status, security or health problems
- Family history of suicide
- Substance abuse
- Prior suicide attempts
- Declining performance and participation in work, relationships, hobbies and socially
- Acquiring the means to commit suicide, or working out a plan (where, when, how)
What can I do to help someone who may be suicidal?
Take the threat very seriously. Every threat is, in truth, a call for help. Better to risk embarrassment if you are wrong than to be remorseful forever.
Once you take the threat seriously and offer to help here are other suggestions:
- Listen. Suicidal people often feel isolated and unimportant. Be nonjudgmental and empathetic.
- Most suicidal people don't wish to die. They're incapable of seeing other options. Their warning signs are calls for help before they take the only option they can see.
- If you're unsure, ask if they're suicidal. Asking will not make it worse; rather, it gives them permission to talk.
- Talking gives a sense of connection, of hope, and shows that someone cares enough to listen and support them.
- If they're suicidal, ask if they have a plan. Do they have the means? Have they thought about when to attempt it?
- If they don’t have a plan, it may not be an immediate crisis. Nevertheless there is a serious problem. Encourage them to get professional help and offer to help make the first call.
- If they do have a plan but are not threatening immediate action, ensure they commit to not taking suicidal action until they see you again. You could formalise this into a contract, agreement or promise. Again, encourage professional help and offer to help make the first call.
- If they have a plan and are threatening immediate action, do not leave them alone. Take whatever action is necessary to get them into professional hands.
Bartram, DJ and Baldwin, DS. Veterinary surgeons and suicide: influences, opportunities and research directions. Vet Rec 2008;162:36-40.
Jones, DP and Crowley, MJ. Depression and suicide among lawyers. Bar Leader Magazine 1998:March/April.