Long hours, high expectations, sleep deprivation, fears of
litigation and complaints, physical work demands and
dealing with emotional situations contribute to a vet's
stress levels. Photo by VetSouth.
Research in the United Kingdom has shown that
veterinarians there are up to four times more likely to commit
suicide than the general population and twice as likely than
other healthcare professionals.
New Zealand Vet Council chief executive and registrar Janet
Eden said it was likely that similar results could be found
among New Zealand vets, although there had been little
research done here on the topic.
• Alex vet knows stresses first-hand, offers to mentor less
However, a researcher from the University of Edinburgh,
Richard Mellanby, had contacted the council, which acts in
the public interest, to ask if it was interested in
participating in an extension of further research done in
England, which looked at why suicide rates were so high among
vets, she said.
Massey University's Institute of Veterinary, Animal and
Biomedical Sciences head Dr Frazer Allan said one of the
issues was vets' ready access to drugs to make suicide
"As they deal with life and death on a daily basis, it not
only takes its toll, but death has no mystique about it," Dr
David Bartram, of the University of Southampton, looked at
why veterinarians were at such high risk of anxiety,
depression and suicide, compared with the general population,
and the type of pressures they were under.
He covered mental ill health and wellbeing, as well as
anxiety, depression, alcohol addiction and suicide rates for
Mr Bartram surveyed 20 per cent of practising vets in the
United Kingdom and more than a quarter of the respondents
seemed to have "probable clinical signs of anxiety" and about
six per cent had "probable signs of depression", which were
statistically higher than in the general population.
He found vets were more likely to drink alcohol and be "at
risk" drinkers than the general population and just over 21
per cent of respondents said they had thought of taking their
Other research in Australia showed similar results with
higher rates of suicide of vets in rural areas than in urban
He said as euthanasia of animals was sometimes seen as a
"positive outcome", so perhaps suicide was seen as a
"positive outcome to a vet's own problems".
Long hours, a concern of making professional mistakes and a
lower level of support from their workplace all contributed
to stress levels.
"We would suspect very similar results in New Zealand," Ms
She said the profession's long hours, after hours call-out
requirements, sleep deprivation, fears of litigation and
complaints, physical work demands and risk of injury, client
expectations, dealing with emotional situations, as well as
running the business side of the practice all contributed to
high stress levels among vets.
However, the vet council had put programmes in place to help
She said in 2008 there were about 2300 practising vets in New
Zealand and a quarter of those were involved with production
All vets have to apply to the council each year for
"re-certification" as part of their practice-renewal process.
"They have got to make a declaration in relation to their
fitness to practice," she said.
The council had statutory powers that it could invoke if it
thought a vet's health was impairing his or her performance,
but who did not accept they had a problem.
The council has systems in place to provide early
intervention help, including using "Seed" - a professional
Ms Eden could only recall one incidence of a statutory power
being invoked in the past two years.
"However, this year to date we have dealt with 22 cases of
health issues among vets and that includes three drug and
alcohol addiction cases.
"The majority would have been depression or some physical
The New Zealand Veterinary Association's resources manager,
Wayne Ricketts, said while there was a spike when three
people from one graduating class had committed suicide three
or four years ago, in the two years he had been with the
association he had only heard of one suicide.
"Anecdotally it has been said we are up there, but I would
like to see how we do compare with other professions," Mr
He said stress, particularly in the rural sector, was higher
as there were likely to be fewer vets than in the urban
This converted into longer hours, increased tiredness and
fatigue, the continual need to make decisions about expensive
animals and those which were part of a client's family, and
dealing with people's grief.
He said young graduates had a limited ability and life
experience to deal with grief.
Young graduates also often had high student debt or if they
were in their own practice, were under pressure to ensure the
business made enough money.
He said the NZVA provided a mentoring programme, which paired
a senior vet with a younger one, to provide guidance and
"Most practices have induction programmes that deal with
professional and personal stresses."
Both the NZVA and the council were concerned about their
members' welfare and made sure they were aware of the support
SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION
If you are experiencing symptoms of depression contact your
GP or local Community Mental Health Centre. Symptoms include:
- Feelings of sadness that do not go away.
- Persistent low mood or emotional numbness.
- Losing interest and pleasure in your usual activities.
- Crying for no apparent reason.
- Feelings of irritability.
- Excessive anxiety, agitation or worry.
- Changes in your sleeping or eating patterns.
- Loss of energy, lethargy, extreme tiredness or fatigue.
- Lack of motivation.
- Reduced interest in sex.
- Feeling worthless or hopeless.
- Feeling guilty for no reason.
- Poor concentration and forgetfulness.
- Suicidal thoughts.
NATIONAL DEPRESSION HELPLINE
Freephone: 0800 111 757, 8am to midnight. Provides support
from 8am to midnight, 365 days a year. Callers can talk to a
trained counsellor who can discuss their situation and offer
information, and if necessary, advice on local services.
- Talk to friends or family, and church support services.
Your local Citizens Advice Bureau may be able to tell you
about support services in your area, such as marae-based
community support services.
TELEPHONE COUNSELLING SERVICES
Lifeline: 0800 111 777
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Youthline: 0800 376 633, firstname.lastname@example.org, text:
027 4 YOUTHS.
See your White Pages for further local contact phone numbers.
Copy: Mental Health Foundation,