Kara Nelsen had just told reporters at a news conference this week how stereotypes can mislead when it comes to suicide — her brother was a happy-go-lucky businessman in Minneapolis before his death — when she defied another one as we chatted on our way out the door.
“I’m a veterinarian,” she said, then lamented that suicide is a major problem in her profession.
Really, veterinarians? A little more research found a shocking answer.
Veterinarians have the third-highest risk of suicide as a cause of death when compared to other U.S. occupations, according to a Star Tribune check of the National Occupational Mortality Surveillance database.
Maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies, the database uses an obscure statistic called the proportional mortality ratio to compare occupations. In the case of suicide, the ratio divides the number of self-inflicted deaths among adults in a given occupation by the total number of deaths in that workforce.
Only podiatrists and dentists had higher ratios than veterinarians, according to the database, which uses death records from 24 states in a recent seven-year period.
Professionals have debated whether vets have distinct suicide risks or just share the risks that emerge with all health care professionals, who can be overwhelmed by the pace of their jobs and worn down by their empathy and compassion for sick and dying patients.
One risk factor unique to veterinary medicine, though, is the comfort level with euthanasia as providers often put down ailing pets. Another is that veterinarians work with animals by choice, but their relative social isolation could exacerbate depression.
On Monday, the American Veterinary Medical Association issued an alert in conjunction with National Suicide Prevention Week.
“Veterinarians care so much about the health and well-being of their patients, but sometimes they neglect their own health and well-being,” said Tom Meyer, association president.
Unique or not, the suicide risk factor for veterinarians is another reminder for people to ignore stereotypes if they sense friends or relatives might be at risk.
The national prevention line is 800-273-8255.