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Connecticut veterinarian explains why suicide mortality remains high for the profession

A veterinarian comforts a dog after it is sedated before its surgery at the Harris County Pets animal shelter on July 18, 2022 in Houston, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
A veterinarian comforts a dog after it is sedated before its surgery at the Harris County Pets animal shelter on July 18, 2022, in Houston.

For more than three decades, U.S. veterinarians have been at an increased risk for suicide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

It's a statistic underscored by relatively easy access to lethal drugs, debt from years of schooling, and the emotionally-draining compassion fatigue that comes with making daily life-and-death decisions for people and their pets.

"It's hard to feel like you have to be perfect every day," said Dr. Matt Kornatowski, vice president of the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Association. Clients are "handing over their beloved pet to you and if it doesn't go perfectly, then you're going to be wracked with guilt."

"Veterinarians lose days — weeks — of sleep over those incidents," Kornatowski said.

In 2018, a CDC study found that female veterinarians were 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population. For male veterinarians it was 2.1 times more likely.

Kornatowski said there are a lot of reasons for that, but one is easy access to lethal drugs.

Data from the National Violent Death Reporting System found a drug used for pet euthanasia was the most common way for veterinarians and vet technicians to end their lives.

Kornatowski said many in the profession also face a crippling debt — climbing into hundreds of thousands of dollars. "And the interest rates are sometimes up around 8.5%," he said. "That interest rate then compounds on top of the loan, and that interest begins accruing interest, and you can't get ahead of it."

What can be done?

To help combat this issue, Connecticut veterinarians have a launched a program called "Veterinarians for the Intervention and Prevention of Suicide." The American Veterinary Medical Association is holding asuicide prevention awareness webinar. Many other grassroots organizations, such as Not One More Vet and the Veterinary Mental Health Initiative, have been launched by people within the veterinary field.

Pet owners can also help by being patient and understanding.

Kornatowski said Connecticut clinics and their staff will sometimes get bullied on social media. So as a simple rule, he said, be kind and compassionate to the people whose job it is to do the same for your pets.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Jennifer Ahrens is a producer for Morning Edition. She spent 20+ years producing TV shows for CNN and ESPN. She joined Connecticut Public Media because it lets her report on her two passions, nature and animals.
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