A recent study indicates that feeling professionally stuck is a significant risk factor for depression and suicidal thinking among vets, reports Meg Crawford
Sadly, depression and anxiety are so rife in the veterinary community that they’re almost occupational hazards. Even worse, suicide rates are disproportionately high in the profession. For example, a study based on Western Australian and Victorian vets indicated that the risk of suicide was up to four times higher among them compared with the rest of the population.
In the October 2016 issue of Vet Practice, we explored one of the factors contributing to depression among vets, namely, compassion fatigue. In this feature, we focus on another significant contributor, this time the perception among some vets that their skill set is not readily transferable, leading to the belief that they’re condemned to remain in practice, despite a fervent wish to be doing something else.
What prompted the new research?
Dr Monique Crane, lecturer in organisational psychology at Macquarie University and co-author of the paper “I’ve been a long time leaving”, says she only twigged to the fact that the perception of occupational non-transferability was a risk factor for suicidal thinking and behaviour after talking to a number of vets. “I was particularly concerned about one vet’s wellbeing,” she recalls. “One of the things that dominated his conversation was that he couldn’t get out of being a veterinarian and felt that being a vet wasn’t the profession for him. It would have been fine if he’d been able to move into something else, but he found doors were closing when it came to looking for work in another industry and that’s when he hit the skids.” In that case, the perception of a lack of transferability was real: the vet had sought feedback from a number of prospective employers and had been met with the blanket, unhelpful response of, “But you’re a vet.”
“I’ve known many friends who have transferred out of veterinary sciences to do research or other roles that make use of their skills,” says Dr Crane. “Obviously, they’re very bright, very skilled, great writers and researchers and can do lots of different things, but sometimes they get feedback from the community that those skills aren’t seen as transferable. There’s a perception in the community that pigeonholes vets.”
Dr Crane notes that factors like where a vet is located can also have a real impact on the transferability of skills. For instance, vets in rural areas find it more difficult to transfer out of the profession, in contrast with their city compatriots.
How was the study conducted and what did it find?
In order to determine whether other vets felt equally trapped and whether that was having a detrimental impact on their mental health, Dr Crane and her colleagues followed a group of 161 practicing vets (aged between 22 and 79 years of age) over a 12-month period. The study determined that where a vet had a desire to change professions but regarded his or her skill set as having limited transferability, the experience of suicidal ideation and behaviours increased over the period. In contrast, where a vet considered his or her skills as having value outside of the profession, suicidal thinking and behaviours decreased over the same time.
“Sometimes they get feedback from the community that those skills aren’t seen as transferable. There’s a perception in the community that pigeonholes vets.”—Dr Monique Crane, lecturer, Macquarie University
Are there other factors that lead to vets feeling trapped?
Aside from the perceived lack of transferability of skills, other factors can play into vets feeling stuck, including family pressure to study veterinary science in the first place, and how integrated the profession is it into someone’s sense of identity.
Then, there’s the money trap. “You’re earning good money, you’ve sent your kids of to good schools and bought a house in a nice suburb, and there’s a good chance that retraining or changing occupations means a significant pay cut,” Dr Crane says. “Financially, you’re entangled. People need to be a little bit more conservative when it comes to getting entangled like that, especially if they’re not entirely confident that this is the profession for them. People get totally stuck and it requires a huge psychological adjustment to take less money. Paying people more only gives them short-term satisfaction until they readjust to the new pay. Going backwards from that point is a much more difficult psychological margin.”
Why are vets becoming disillusioned with the profession?
Dr Crane is aware that sometimes the underlying issue prompting dissatisfaction with veterinary practice is linked to an uncomfortable fit between a vet’s moral code and the requirements of the job, particularly when it comes to euthanising animals. “Veterinary students go in to the science knowing that ultimately it’s part of the role and they probably even know that they’ll need to do it when they don’t agree,” Dr Crane observes. “But sometimes what’s not expected is the level of abject cruelty, which slowly erodes away whatever protective factors the vet has.”
Dr Crane also notes the undervaluing of veterinarians in the community, which is communicated in a variety of ways, as having a detrimental impact on satisfaction with the profession.
“For example, take the laws that govern when people can put down an animal and when they can’t. The fact that people can legally do convenience euthanasia when they’re going on holidays and have a perfectly good animal killed; that communicates a lack of value.
“There’s no real recourse against someone who doesn’t want to put a pet in a dog hotel. The vet will try to negotiate other options—‘Is there anyone else you can put the dog with, or could we give it to the RSPCA or could we give it away’—and people say no. It’s not that common, but it is one of the most distressing things that occurs. The vets are trying to save animals and it doesn’t seem like the system is protecting them.”