Survey to probe veterinarians’ mental health

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Anecdotal evidence and a handful of studies have indicated that veterinarians with certain personality traits or exposure to certain risk factors may be vulnerable to mental illness and even suicide. And while the topic of wellness and mental health has been gaining prominence in the profession, a lack of comprehensive data remains a problem.

To assess the prevalence of U.S. veterinarians who recently experienced serious mental illness or contemplated suicide, the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians is partnering with Auburn University, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other stakeholders to conduct a nationwide survey of veterinarians beginning July 1 and ending Sept. 30.

Veterinarian and feline patientThe research study, titled “Stress and health among veterinarians,” is being conducted by Tracy Witte, PhD, an assistant professor in the Auburn University psychology department, in collaboration with physicians and veterinarians at the CDC, state health departments, and state agricultural agencies.

Specifically, the purpose of this study is to assess the prevalence of mental illness and prior suicidal thoughts among U.S. veterinarians and to identify key stressors veterinarians experience and their perceived access to mental health treatment. The online survey asks about stressors related to veterinary practice, past history of depression and suicidal behavior, perception of mental illness, and access to mental health treatment. The survey takes about 10 minutes; participants will remain anonymous.

The principal co-investigator, Randall J. Nett, MD, is a career epidemiology field officer for the CDC stationed at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. He is married to a veterinarian and became interested in the suspected high suicide rate among veterinarians after reading a relevant article in JAVMA (see JAVMA, Nov. 15, 2013).

“We did a literature search, and it did not seem like there was a lot of great information on the state of mental health in veterinarians in the nation,” he said.

The original plan was to survey Montana veterinarians, but it continued to expand in scope as more states and entities heard about the project to where now, all 50 states are being asked for their involvement.

“We’re excited about hopefully getting a large number of veterinarians to respond to the survey to get a better understanding of mental health needs in that population,” Dr. Nett said.

“We recognize there are a lot of ailing veterinarians out there, and it seems like from limited published evidence that there are many states where there are not active wellness programs and there’s probably lots of prevention opportunities not being taken advantage of currently.”

On completion of the survey and analysis, the investigators plan to share the results with participating entities.

Dr. Nett says the hope is the survey results can better inform key decision-makers to reduce the barriers veterinarians seem to face in seeking mental health treatment and figure out how to minimize the impact of mental health issues on veterinarians.

“We think it will provide a good snapshot of how prevalent mental illness is in the U.S. among veterinarians. Depending on the results and what actions are taken by key decision-makers, we may do a follow-up survey,” Dr. Nett added.