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Why suicide rates are high among veterinary professionals

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Working in the veterinary field and helping animals can bring joy to those in the profession. But data shows that veterinarians are more likely to die by suicide than the general population. Anna Spidel of Side Effects Public Media reports that it's a complex issue researchers and others are trying to solve. And a warning - this story contains discussions of both suicide and euthanasia.

ANNA SPIDEL, BYLINE: At the University of Missouri's Veterinary Health Center, students work alongside veterinary professionals during the clinical portion of training. Here, they'll learn to treat everything from horses to cows to dogs of every kind.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)

SPIDEL: Third-year vet student Meghan Lawlor is at the very beginning of her clinical training. She began her rotations about two months ago. She loves her work but says it comes with a lot of stress.

MEGHAN LAWLOR: As a veterinary student, you're striving to still get the best grades and be president of all these clubs, and then it carries on into being a practicing veterinary professional.

SPIDEL: During her first year, Lawlor struggled with anxiety and perfectionism. She sought the support of Kerry Carafa. Carafa researches mental health in veterinary professions, and he's a psychologist whose office is tucked away in Mizzou's main vet med building. His white noise machine is a constant presence. He says it creates a soothing and private atmosphere when he counsels veterinary students.

KERRY CARAFA: Vet students - they're taking care of themselves, but they're also taking care of the patients, the pets. And sometimes they're kind of taking care of the owners as well. They're exposed to a lot of kind of emotionally intense, you know, situations.

SPIDEL: In his research, Carafa has found that things like perfectionism, financial stress, burnout and conflicts with clients over things like treatment options and costs can all contribute to mental health for vet students and professionals. A 2019 Centers for Disease Control study shows veterinarians are between two to four times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. Mental health counselor Taylor Miller is a former veterinarian. She's also an advocate for Not One More Vet. It's an organization that works to promote mental well-being among people who work in the field.

TAYLOR MILLER: We want to make it possible for people to exist in this career that is so wonderful without being hurt.

SPIDEL: Euthanasia is often brought up as the driving force behind stress and high suicide rates among veterinarians. Research has found that using drugs to end an animal's life can have a psychological impact, but there isn't conclusive data linking it to suicides. Studies have found that access to euthanasia drugs may play a part in vet suicide rates. Experts in the industry have proposed a variety of ways they hope will lower the numbers. Epidemiologist Suzanne Tomasi says one suggestion calls for putting stickers with crisis hotline numbers inside of drug lock boxes.

SUZANNE TOMASI: That would be something that would be easy, and it wouldn't take really any money.

SPIDEL: Tomasi works for the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety and is a former veterinarian. She says one of the big problems is that the profession doesn't have gatekeepers. Instead of pharmacists dispensing medication, it's veterinarians who both prescribe and dispense it for the animals they treat. And they often hold the keys to the lock boxes where drugs are kept. So another suggestion includes implementing a two-person system in order to access the drugs. However, Tomasi says that's not doable for most rural vets, who often work alone.

TOMASI: Those large animal vets that are in a truck by themselves - they don't have somebody else with them. So who's going to sign off?

SPIDEL: Ultimately, Tomasi says that there should be more of an effort to make cultural changes, like reducing long hours that lead to burnout and finding ways to reduce student loan debt. But she says access to euthanasia drugs shouldn't be left out of the conversation, especially for people who are already experiencing a crisis. For NPR News, I'm Anna Spidel in Columbia, Mo.

CHANG: And if you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis, you can call 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - just those three numbers, 988. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anna Spidel