Retired veterinarian Geoff Tomkins performs a more traditional dental procedure on his pony.
Retired veterinarian Geoff Tomkins performs a more traditional dental procedure on his pony. Cathy Adams

Suicide risk high for vets

FEW things are more stressful and traumatic than helplessly watching animals suffer.

For most of us, we rely on our local vet for their clinical skill and calm assurance in crises where our pets or animals are ill or in pain.

But that stress could be taking a greater toll on veterinary surgeons across Australia than previously thought.

A recent study shows the incidence of suicide among veterinary surgeons is four times greater than the general population, yet little research has been done to find out why.

Veterinary surgeons from around the state will gather in Ballina this weekend to discuss this and other pressing issues at the Australian Veterinary Association's NSW annual conference.

Retired Lismore vet and Far North Coast branch member, Geoff Tomkins, says rural vets are disproportionately represented in the figures and he hopes local vets will take advantage of the conference on their doorstep this weekend.

Dr Tomkins cautions against an alarmist response to the figures – reminding us that all medical professions suffer higher rates of suicide than normal – but the figures for vets are still twice that of other healthcare professionals.

“As a community we've moved on from suicide being a criminal offence. However there are religious and cultural taboos still lingering there and we're hoping that encouraging an open discussion will help to soften those views,” he said.

“We don't talk about being depressed and not able to cope in our society because it's perceived as a sign of weakness – and you don't want to be seen as weak in this profession where you've got to be a strong individual.”

The study, published last year in the Australian Veterinary Record, said the figures were most likely the result of a complex interaction of causes rather than a single smoking gun.

It lists work-related stress, professional and social isolation, the stigma of mental illness, and contextual effects like different attitudes to death and euthanasia as some of the likely factors.

Dr Tomkins hopes by opening up the discussion, more resources and better responses can be made available to veterinary surgeons, particularly rural and regional vets.

“We want the members of our association to know that there are people here who are sympathetic to their problems and any feelings they might have of despondency, despair or depression,” he said.

“We want them to know that they have support amongst their peers – even amongst their competitors in the same area.

Dr Harry Freeman, a psychiatrist, will conduct the session.

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