Mental health, well-being problem serious, not dire: study

New research quantifies mental illness, stress among veterinarians
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Updated March 16, 2018

The veterinary profession’s mental state may not be as dire as previously thought.

A new mental health and well-being study found 5.3 percent of the veterinary profession is suffering severe psychological distress. This estimated prevalence is only slightly higher than the prevalence in the general population (5.1 percent) and substantially lower than the 9.3 percent figure reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its study, "Prevalence of Risk Factors for Suicide Among Veterinarians—United States, 2014."

The new estimate is one of several findings from the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study highlighted at the Veterinary Meeting and Expo (formerly North American Veterinary Community Conference) Feb. 6 in Orlando, Florida.

In recent years, the AVMA has made member well-being a priority.

Veterinarians have slightly lower degrees of well-being than the general population, with personality likely accounting for the difference, according to the study, which also found that poor mental health and low well-being were closely associated with the stresses of professional life, including inexperience, excessive work hours, and educational debt.

Just 41 percent of veterinarians would recommend the profession to a friend or family member—even large numbers of those that score high in wellbeing and mental health do not recommend the profession.

Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study

A mental health treatment gap exists in veterinary medicine, the study authors concluded. Although many veterinarians with serious psychological distress are receiving treatment, a substantial number are not. Few employers offer employee assistance programs. Individuals with serious psychological distress and poor well-being are far more likely to spend less time on healthy activities, such as recreation and exercise, and more time on social media.

Notably, just 41 percent of veterinarians would recommend the profession to a friend or family member—even large numbers of those who score high in well-being and mental health do not recommend the profession. In the general population, about 70 percent would recommend their career to a friend or family member.

While the authors of the Merck Animal Health study believe the results show the veterinary profession is not in a mental health crisis, the seriousness of the problem is underscored by the fact that 24.9 percent of veterinarians have considered suicide at some time in their lives, and 1.6 percent have attempted suicide.

Study authors include Dr. Linda Lord of Merck Animal Health; psychologist and well-being expert Ulrich Schimmack, PhD, of the University of Toronto; Elizabeth Strand, PhD, a licensed social worker on staff at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine; John Volk, senior consultant with Brakke Consulting; and Coli Siren with Kynetec, a market research firm.

They set out to quantify the prevalence of mental illness and stress in the veterinary profession and compare their findings with findings for previous studies and the U.S. population. The authors wanted to determine degrees of mental health and well-being, using standardized tools with a representative sample of veterinarians, and identify at-risk segments and contributing factors. They also sought to recommend organizational solutions, personal remedies, and interventions, if needed.

Study results are based on survey responses of 3,540 veterinarians and veterinary students who answered between Nov. 2 and 16, 2017. Data were weighted to the general veterinary population on the basis of age, gender, and region of the United States. The results were compared with those for employed adults in the University of Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the longest-running longitudinal household study in the world. The National Science Foundation recognized the PSID as one of the 60 most important advances it has funded in its 60-year history. Well-being was added to the PSID in 2016.

Mental health involves the presence, or lack thereof, of serious psychological distress, whereas well-being relates to how satisfied individuals are with their lives and how they rank their life in the continuum from worst possible to best possible or ideal life.

The Merck study shows younger veterinarians, both male and female, are more likely than older male veterinarians to experience serious psychological distress. Among younger veterinarians, there was no statistically significant difference in distress between men and women. Major conditions self-reported by mentally distressed respondents include depression (94 percent), compassion fatigue/burnout (88 percent), and anxiety and panic attacks (83 percent).

Twenty-five percent of respondents have considered suicide at some point, but 70 percent of respondents considered mentally distressed have contemplated the same. The finding that 1.6 percent of respondents have attempted suicide is below the 2.4 percent in a U.S. study of alcoholism and related conditions.

Factors most associated with greater well-being included being in a relationship, spending time with family, earning a higher income, and working a satisfactory number of hours.

Fifty percent of those in serious psychological distress are receiving mental health treatment, with 16 percent using resources from veterinary organizations, such as the AVMA, Veterinary Information Network, their state VMA, DVM360, and the American Animal Hospital Association.

In the area of well-being, male veterinarians scored higher than female veterinarians. Veterinarian well-being improves with age more than in the general population, and older male veterinarians scored exceptionally high in well-being. Food animal veterinarians scored higher in well-being than other segments of the veterinary profession. Owners scored higher than associates, and nonpractitioners scored higher than practitioners. Veterinarian well-being declined as hours worked per week increased.

AVMA resources on well-being, compassion fatigue, and stress management are available online at

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Merck study showed that women are more likely than older male veterinarians to experience serious psychological distress.

Related JAVMA content:

Studies confirm poor well-being in veterinary professionals, students (May 1, 2016)

Study: 1 in 6 veterinarians have considered suicide (April 1, 2015)

Moral stress the top trigger in veterinarians’ compassion fatigue (Jan. 1, 2015)

Finding calm amid the chaos (Nov. 15, 2013)