Does performing euthanasia put veterinarians at a greater risk of suicide?

Written by Monique Crane
Tuesday January 2016

Veterinarians are at an elevated risk of suicide and experiencing psychological distress than other professions, even when accounting for demographics[1,2]. Some authors have proposed that this increased risk of suicide is because of the performance of euthanasia as this is emotionally demanding and sometimes presents moral dilemmas. It has been thought that euthanasia can cause distress and other negative emotions that can develop into depression and/or frequent administration might relax one’s attitude toward suicide and end of life[3,4]. But what is the actual relationship between the performance of euthanasia and suicide-related behaviours and thinking of veterinarians? There are of course other factors, such as the inherently stressful nature of the work itself, that contribute to the higher risk of suicide in this profession[5].

We recently found that the more frequently a veterinarian performed euthanasia in an average week, the greater their risk of depressed mood - suggesting that the performance of euthanasia is a source of stress within this occupation. The relationship was however very small indicating that the performance of euthanasia has very little impact on depressed mood.

When examining the relationship between euthanasia and suicide-related behaviours and thinking we found a possible protective role for euthanasia. Suicide-related thoughts and behaviours actually declined in depressed veterinarians who performed a higher number of euthanasia. We suggest that this is because the performance of euthanasia reminds depressed veterinarians about the finality of death and the grief experienced by loved ones. This challenges the ideas mentioned previously about the performance of euthanasia and its impact on suicide risk.  

The performance of euthanasia plays a very minor role in a veterinarian’s risk of suicide and there are many other important factors to consider that are related to suicide risk or depression in veterinarians. This association is rather complex than once anticipated and other aspects might be more of an issue. It also indicates that veterinarians perhaps use effective coping mechanisms to deal with the distress of performing euthanasia. We thus suggest that to support the wellbeing of veterinarians other work demands should be considered.

For more information please see:

[1] Fritschi, L., Morrison, D., Shirangi, A., & Day, L. (2009). Psychological wellbeing of Australian veterinarians. Australian Veterinary Journal, 87, 76–81. doi:10.1111/j.1751-0813.2009.00391.x

[2] Platt, B., Hawton, K., Simkin, S., & Mellanby, R. J. (2012). Suicidal behavior and psychosocial problems in veterinary surgeons: A system- atic review. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 47, 223– 240. doi:10.1007/s00127-010-0328-6

[3] Arluke, A. (1994). Managing emotions in an animal shelter. In A. Manning & J. Serpell (Eds.), Animals and human society (pp. 145-165). New York, NY Routledge.

[4] Bartram, D.J., & Baldwin, D.S. (2008). Veterinary surgeons and suicide: Influences, opportunities and research directions. Veterinary Record, 162, 36-40.

[5] Wasserman, I. (1992). Economy, work, occupation, and suicide. In R. Maris, A. Berman, J. Maltsberger, & R. Yufit (Eds.), Assessment and prediction of suicide (pp. 520-539). New York: Guilford.

Tran, L., Crane, M. F., & Phillips, J. K. (2014). The distinct role of performing euthanasia on depression and suicide in veterinarians. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 19(2), 123-132. doi: 10.1037/a0035837.