Veterinarians facing mental health challenges

Pets need veterinary care, but practitioners may need some attention, too. Canadian veterinarians have higher stress, burnout, compassion fatigue, anxiety and depression, and reported more suicidal ideation and lower resilience than the general population, says a landmark 2020 study published by University of Guelph researchers.

The team surveyed all of Canada’s roughly 12,500 veterinarians working in companion animal care as well as food safety and agricultural support from February through July 2017. Some 1,400 practitioners (about 10 per cent) responded; just over three-quarters of respondents identified as women.

Andria Jones-Bitton
Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton

Overall, female veterinarians have higher poor mental health outcomes than men

About 30 per cent of women veterinarians reported a history of mental illness, compared with almost 27 per cent for men. Just over 15 per cent of women reported mental illness at the time of the survey, compared to just over 9 per cent for men – a key point, says lead author Jennifer Perret, a veterinarian now completing her PhD with Prof. Andria Jones-Bitton in OVC’s Department of Population Medicine.

“Overall, female veterinarians have higher poor mental health outcomes than men,” says Perret, who works part-time at the Guelph Animal Hospital. “We really need to focus on supports for women.”

The study says caregiver mental health can be improved through wellness interventions such as mindfulness and resilience training and improved workplace culture. The researchers also recommend management skills training, reduced working hours and more support services for veterinarians.

This winter, Jones-Bitton, DVM ’00, was appointed as director of well-being programming for OVC, including implementing training across the college curriculum.

She says veterinarians often find themselves caught between a desire to help animal patients and clients’ inability to pay for expensive diagnosis and treatment. “It’s important that we train veterinary students and veterinarians in the profession to build resilience skills,” says Jones-Bitton, whose research includes studying aspects of communication and other interpersonal skills. “We all need a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.”