Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How common are depression and psychological distress in veterinarians?

Are we sitting ducks for stress? Should we be more proactive?

How common is stress in veterinarians? According to a recent US study, the answer is “very”.

Randell Nett and colleagues surveyed 11,627 US based veterinarians about risk factors for suicide, attitudes to mental illness and practice-related stressors. They found:
  • 9 per cent of respondents had current psychological distress.
  • 31 per cent had experienced depressive episodes since they left veterinary school (unfortunately we don’t know what the incidence was before vet school, i.e. there could be a selection bias in veterinary schools for factors that are associated with depression).
  • 17 per cent experienced suicidal ideation (or 1 in 6, roughly).
  • 1 per cent had attempted suicide.
  • 19 per cent were being treated for a mental condition.

To me the most interesting statistic is this one:
  • Only 32 per cent agreed to any degree that people were sympathetic toward persons with a mental illness (compared with almost double or over 60 per cent of the non-veterinary adult population).

They were also less likely to agree that treatment helps people with a mental illness lead normal lives.

Does this mean they’re less likely to seek treatment? That we don’t know. It isn’t simple to map findings about beliefs onto people’s behaviour – its human nature to believe one thing and sometimes do something totally the opposite. Surveys like this are somewhat challenging to interpret as participation is voluntary and one can’t tell if people are more likely to respond if they’re currently feeling distressed or down. But if it does mean we're less likely to do something about negative psychological states, its a worry.

Certainly within the profession there is more scope for pre-emptive, meticulous self-care. It seems to fall by the wayside all the time, whether it’s a matter of keeping hydrated or giving yourself room to grieve. Maybe its a matter of finding a qualified health professional who is open after hours, or who you can skpe - but they are out there. Interestingly, as a profession we're more open to treating psychological distress in animals than ever before. Which is fantastic for the welfare of animals, but are we failing to extend that same compassion to ourselves?

In terms of sources of stress, the “demands of practice” were considered the most stressful. It’s an umbrella term that covered pretty much everything related to work. For practice owners this includes things like practice management responsibilities (HR and the like), competition with other practices etc). For employed vets or associates this included things like professional errors, educational debt, unclear  management/work role, and lack of participation in direct decision making.

It was not all bad news. More than half found that coping with feelings of grief was not a challenge. More than two thirds had the same sense of satisfaction in helping animals as they did before vet school. Over 70 per cent were happy with their career choice and 80 per cent were happy being veterinarians. This wasn’t compared with figures from the non-veterinary adult population, but that actually seems quite positive to me.