Stressful Stats: Findings of Veterinary Wellbeing Study Spark Hope, Worry

By Ramona Marek

Veterinarians 45 years old and younger were more likely to experience serious psychological distress, and only 27 percent of those would recommend the veterinary profession to others. Those were among the notable findings of a comprehensive veterinary wellbeing study presented at the 2018 Veterinary Meeting & Expo (VMX) in Orlando, Fla., on February 6, 2018. The online survey of 3,540 veterinarians, designed to measure the prevalence of mental illness and stress in the veterinary field and compare the findings to those of prior studies and the U.S. public, was a collaboration between Merck Animal Health and the American Veterinary Medical Association.

Unique Size And Scope

Past studies since the 1960s have looked at veterinary mental health, but this study is unique and important for two reasons, says study investigator Linda Lord, Ph.D., D.V.M., academic and allied industry liaison lead, Merck Animal Health.

 

“Through our collaboration with AVMA we were able to survey a representative sample of veterinarians across all sectors of the United States, and the sample data were weighted by age, region and gender, so we feel very confident saying the data truly reflects veterinarians in the United States,” she said. “Earlier studies focused specifically on mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, which are very important; this study is more comprehensive. Certainly mental health is a piece of the survey but we have gone beyond that and looked into wellbeing—how do you feel about your life, happiness, across many domains which could be financial, relationships—it looks at more areas than specifically mental health.”

Mental Health And Wellbeing By The Numbers

According to the study, approximately 1 in 20 veterinarians experience severe psychological distress, which is similar to the general population. Of that subset, the most common conditions reported are depression (94 percent), burnout (88 percent) and anxiety (83 percent). Compared to older male veterinarians and individuals in the general population, younger veterinarians are feeling the effects of financial and emotional stresses of life in the veterinary field.

Some two-thirds (67 percent) of younger veterinarians reported high student debt as a major concern, followed by stress levels (53 percent) and suicides rates (52 percent). Overall, only 41 percent of veterinarians would recommend the veterinary profession to family or friends and that number drops to 24 percent for veterinarians 34 years old and younger, while 62 percent of veterinarians age 65 and older do recommend the profession.

“One of the things that will come out as we talk about the study is the recommendations for how we can support young veterinarians in regard to helping them be successful, whether that is managing their debt or helping them from the standpoint of things like creating a stress management plan to help them deal with the stressors of practice life,” Dr. Lord says. “I think there are things we can work on at the organization level and at the individual level to try to make sure that we have a bright future for our veterinarians.”

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The Great Divide

Only 50 percent of veterinarians with severe psychological distress search for help. That’s a big mental health treatment gap.

“We showed that there’s a very low percentage (16 percent) of veterinarians who have access to employee assistance programs,” Dr. Lord says. “I think, too, the gap may be not knowing where to go for resources, understanding what resources are available, and knowing how easy the resources are to access. We do worry that there is still a stigma around seeking help, that they have a fear that seeking help is going to be frowned upon.”

The Future

If there was a surprise for Dr. Lord in the enormous amount of information from the study, it may be the percentage of veterinarians who do not recommend the profession to others.

“I hope that in the future we’re able to build more confidence around veterinarians in terms of recommending the profession, and I think there are some actionable items to help us work on that,” she says. “The take-away message from the study is, I think, as a profession, we shouldn’t panic. If you look overall, our mental health is comparable to the general population, but I think we have segments that are struggling more. I think in particular we need to pay more attention to our younger veterinarians, regardless of gender, and really think about what we can do to support them and help them have happy, vibrant professional careers.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

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