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The University of Southampton

Vets four times as likely as general public to die by suicide

Published: 26 March 2010

Vets are four times as likely as the general public, and around twice as likely as other healthcare professionals, to die by suicide as opposed to other causes, according to researchers at the University of Southampton.

These findings translate to other developed countries, not just the UK, the evidence shows.

More permissive attutudes toward suicidem as a consequence of the profession’s familiarity with euthanasia in animals and ‘suicide contagion’ as a result of knowledge of suicides among colleagues in a small profession - just 16,000 in the UK - may partly be to blame, it suggests.

In the study, published in Veterinary Record, researchers analysed published research on suicide risk among vets and other occupations in relation to the general population, in a bid to establish the possible reasons behind the figures.

The evidence suggests a complex interplay of potential factors across the career life course.

These include the personality characteristics of high academic achievers entering the profession, such as neuroticism, conscientiousness and perfectionism, all of which are recognized risk factors for suicidal behaviour.

The structure of veterinary practice which delivers long working hours, high levels of psychological demands, low levels of managerial support and high client expectations, also feature among the potential risk factors.

Many vets work in private practice and as such are often professionally and socially isolated, which may make them more vulnerable to depression and suicide.

And the review outlines previous which suggests that those employed in professions directly dependent on clients for income have a higher risk of suicide than other types of employees.

Vets also have ready access to potentially lethal drugs, such as barbiturates, and know how to use them to take their own lives.

At least half of male vets who took their own lives between 1982 and 1996 in England and Wales, used barbiturates, and deliberate poisoning is by far the most common method of suicide for both male and female vets, accounting for between 80 and 90 per cent of vet suicides.

Male vets are almost four times as likely to take their own lives self-poisoning as men in the general population who take their own lives, while female vets are twice as likely to do this as women in the general population.

And attitudes to life and death may also play a part in their higher rates of suicide, the evidence suggests.

Routine involvement in the euthanasia of pets or slaughter of farm animals, and direct or indirect exposure to the suicide of peers within a small profession may make it more acceptable for them to take their own lives, the research suggests.

David Baldwin, based in the University’s School of Medicine, and a specialist in mood disorders, comments: “Further research is needed to look into these risk factors in more detail and to guide the development and timing of appropriate interventions along the career path of vets, to help reduce suicide risk. “

The review was conducted by David Bartram, a PhD student from the University’s School of Medicine, supervised by Dr Baldwin.


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