Merck Animal Health has tackled the subject of mental illness and stress in the veterinary profession with a first-of-its-kind study. Conducted in collaboration with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and Merck Animal Health, the study found veterinarians age 45 and younger are more likely to experience serious psychological distress and only 27 percent of them would endorse the profession to a friend or family member.
“This survey is unique in that, for the first time, a nationally representative sample of veterinarians in the U.S. were asked about their wellbeing, which is a broader measure of happiness and life satisfaction than mental health alone,” said study investigator Linda Lord, Ph.D., D.V.M., academic and allied industry liaison lead, Merck Animal Health. “Based on the survey results, we are particularly concerned about younger veterinarians as they are the future of our profession. We must work together to promote a healthy lifestyle, including work/life balance, access to wellness resources, and debt reduction.”
According to the Merck Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study, about 1 in 20 veterinarians are suffering from serious psychological distress, which is in line with the general population. However, when segmenting the data by age, younger veterinarians are more impacted by the financial and emotional stresses of professional veterinary life, compared to both older male veterinarians and individuals in the general population. Depression (94%), burnout (88%), and anxiety (83%) are the most frequently reported conditions.
Among veterinarians, high student debt was the top concern voiced, with 67 percent rating it as a critically important issue. In 2017, the average veterinary student graduated with more than $138,000 in student debt, according to AVMA, which is nearly twice the average starting salary for a veterinarian, creating a significant strain on the future of the profession. Following student debt, respondents reported the other most serious issues facing young professionals today are stress levels, reported by 53 percent and suicides rates reported by 52 percent. Poor mental health is closely associated with the stresses of professional life –excessive work hours, poor work-life balance, and student debt.
Only half of veterinarians with serious psychological distress are seeking help – creating a big mental health treatment gap. This is compounded by the fact that only few employers offer employee assistance programs. In addition, only 16 percent had ever accessed resources regarding wellbeing and mental health through national or state veterinary organizations.
“Veterinarians today cope with a physically and emotionally demanding occupation that is undergoing changes from increased competition to the declining ability of clients to pay for veterinary care. Moreover, veterinarians often find themselves giving up the things that improve wellbeing and provide a healthy balance in life, such as family, friends and time for self-care,” said Jen Brandt, LISW-S, Ph.D., director, wellbeing and diversity initiatives AVMA. “As an organization that serves veterinarians, our mission is to protect the health and welfare of our members and the future of the profession. As part of these efforts we continuously work to identify accessible resources and assistance related to wellbeing and mental health. Studies such as the Animal Health Veterinary Wellbeing Study provide helpful guidance on the types of resources and education that may be most beneficial.”
The survey showed veterinarians today do not strongly endorse their profession. Only 41 percent of veterinarians overall would recommend the profession to a friend or family member; even large numbers of those that score high in wellbeing and mental health do not recommend the profession. The endorsement rate drops to 24 percent for those 34 years old and younger. In contrast, 62 percent of veterinarians age 65 and older would recommend the profession.
“Merck Animal Health is proud to partner with AVMA to conduct this important study to better understand the challenges facing the veterinary profession,” said Scott Bormann, vice president, U.S. commercial operations, Merck Animal Health. “We are committed to working with AVMA and others to support veterinarians by raising awareness and offering assistance and resources, including close to $3 million in scholarships over the last three years, and will continue to look for ways to positively impact the well-being of practicing veterinarians, and enrich the possibilities for the future of this profession.”
The online survey was conducted by Brakke Consulting in November 2017 among 3,540 of a sample of 20,000 randomly-selected veterinarians in the U.S. For mental health, the study used the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale to identify veterinarians suffering from serious psychological distress. For wellbeing, a customized index was created based on three widely recognized measures. Data were weighted based on age, gender and region of the U.S. All data were tested for statistical significance at the 95 percent confidence level. For the sample as a whole, the maximum margin of error is +/- 1.62 percent.
The study also compared results from respondents to employed adults in the University of Michigan Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), the longest-running longitudinal household study in the world. A key strength of the approaches leveraged in this research is the ability to benchmark findings from the veterinary population against those found in other studies examining veterinarians, as well as the general public.