Despair, suicidal thoughts rife among Norwegian veterinarians

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Research fellow Helene Seljenes Dalum at the University of Oslo, with Viktor.
University of Oslo research fellow Helene Seljenes Dalum, pictured with Viktor. © UiO

A veterinarian’s lot in Norway is not a happy one if the results of a recent study on suicidal thoughts in the profession are anything to go by.

Nearly three-quarters of Norway’s 3700 veterinarians responded to a survey on the topic, and half of the 2596 veterinarians with serious suicidal thoughts reported that their job was the most important contributing factor.

Almost three out of ten veterinarians in Norway felt that life was not worth living during the last year. One in 20 experienced serious suicidal thoughts and one in 500 attempted to take their own life.

University of Oslo research fellow Helene Seljenes Dalum, who carried out the study with professors Reidar Tyssen and Erlend Hem, said the statistics were worrying, “especially since an earlier study showed that the suicide rate amongst veterinarians in Norway was about double that of the general population”.

It is the first scientific study that examines the work, well-being and mental health of veterinarians in Norway. It has been published in the journal BMJ Open.

Dalum, from the Department of Behavioural Medicine, is a qualified veterinarian herself. She points to several possible explanations for the findings, one being that veterinarians often work alone and have heavy responsibilities. “Many of them are under great pressure of work, they are often low paid, and euthanizing animals is an everyday occurrence. Very often, there are no colleagues at hand to give them guidance and advice during the course of the working day.

“Unlike physicians, who practise medicine under supervision for 18 months after completing their studies, some veterinarians feel that they have had too little practice during their undergraduate curriculum. They find the transition to working life difficult,” Dalum said.

Dalum said veterinarians have to take sole responsibility for any errors they commit. “In contrast, doctors in a hospital may be able to lean on the management who may take the brunt of the blame.”

She said that while great medical advances have been made in veterinary science over the past 20 years, that comes at a cost. “An increasing proportion of animals can be treated today, instead of being put down, as would previously have been the only alternative.”

Still, treatment costs a lot of money, often amounting to thousands of dollars.

“People in Norway are used to only paying a nominal sum when they go to their doctor and they do not understand how expensive it is to run a veterinary practice that receives no state subsidies,” Dalum said.

Veterinarians often had to face difficult discussions with customers about treatment fees. “Many animal owners often feel that treatments at the vet are expensive. However, our animals do not pay taxes and all expenses must therefore be covered by the individual owner,” she said.

The survey questioned the veterinarians about negative events in their life, since it is known that these can affect the prevalence of suicidal thoughts. Financial problems were an important factor amongst those who reported experiencing serious suicidal thoughts. “Serious suicidal thoughts” meant that they had thought specifically about taking their life and made plans for how to do it.

Being single and suffering symptoms of anxiety and depression were additional independent factors for serious suicidal thoughts, and female veterinarians had higher levels of suicidal feelings and thoughts than their male colleagues. Gender differences were also present in the self-reported contributing factors, as female veterinarians reported work problems more frequently than men.

“In addition, we may ask whether veterinarians are influenced by the fact that they routinely have to defend euthanasia as the right solution when an animal’s quality of life is poor. Does that lower the threshold for taking one’s own life?

“On the other hand, veterinarians also see the effect of putting an animal down on the families who deeply mourn the loss of their pet. We need to do more research on this particular question,” Dalum said.

Dalum emphasises that more research is needed in order to outline the way forward. But she hopes the study will increase awareness about the mental health of veterinarians, promote discussions about these issues in the profession, and lead to changes in how veterinary medicine is taught.

“Up until now, there has been too little focus on how to take on the role of a veterinarian and on how to communicate. Veterinarians have to face many of the same emotionally demanding situations with patients as doctors, and animal owners think of their pet as a member of the family.

“It is a step in the right direction that tuition in clinical communication and mental health is now being introduced into the veterinary medicine curriculum,” Dalum said.

Prevalence and individual and work-related factors associated with suicidal thoughts and behaviours among veterinarians in Norway: a cross-sectional, nationwide survey-based study (the NORVET study). Dalum HS, Tyssen R, Hem E. BMJ Open 2022;12:e055827. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2021-055827

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