Vets prone to stress-related conditions

Long hours, high expectations, sleep deprivation, fears of litigation and complaints, physical...
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.

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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 easier.

"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 Allan said.

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 the profession.

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 own lives.

Other research in Australia showed similar results with higher rates of suicide of vets in rural areas than in urban areas.

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 Eden said.

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 them.

She said in 2008 there were about 2300 practising vets in New Zealand and a quarter of those were involved with production animals.

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 employee-assistance programme.

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 degeneration cases."

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 Ricketts said.

He said stress, particularly in the rural sector, was higher as there were likely to be fewer vets than in the urban practices.

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 support.

"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 services available.


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.

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.

Lifeline: 0800 111 777
Samaritans: 0800 726 666
Youthline: 0800 376 633,, text: 027 4 YOUTHS.

See your White Pages for further local contact phone numbers.

Copy: Mental Health Foundation,


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