Why can’t vets cure the black dog? – Screening sixth formers to curb suicide rates among vets just can’t be the answer

Last week, I stumbled across a tweet about an article in The Express which was about a plan to introduce mental health screening for prospective veterinary students in the UK to try and tackle the shockingly high rate of suicide among practising vets. The idea of this made me very angry, very quickly and not being shy to speak my mind I wrote exactly how I felt about this idea on a Facebook post which I didn’t expect to gain nearly as much attention as it did from my own friends let alone people to whom it had been shared.

I don’t claim to be fully informed about, let alone an expert in, veterinary mental health but I was quickly pointed to people who are, by both my veterinary mentors. Dr Rosie Allister is a vet and manager of Vetlife Helpline who has spent the last ten years studying mental health in vet students and recent graduates. Although she was cited in the original article and then berated by the Twitterati, she was quick to refute the idea that she supported this plan and said “Agree, misleading headline with potentially harmful consequences. I hope students can hear that the profession does not agree with this.”


Although this is welcome news, there are certain conversations that have to be had at this point to totally shut down any possibility of this atrocious idea ever reaching fruition.

As someone who is terrified of talking about mental health (raising questions for another day) and verges on being physically sick when reminded of the friends, family and classmates that have taken their own life, this topic is – to say the least – a challenge to talk about. But now, more than ever, it’s crucial to have these conversations and hope it makes it easier for vets and vet students to speak to people about their own concerns.

Many of us will have dreamed of being a vet since we were about three and continued to dream through school, exams and through our time at studying to be vets. Imagine – for a moment – that you rocked up to your interview and then after being quizzed about dosage calculations, comparative anatomy or biochemistry you will never come across again you are ushered into a room with a psychiatrist (or, more likely, a psychologist) and assessed on your mental stability. You’ve worked harder than most of your friends, received stellar results and been more stressed than ever before in your life, a period of “growing up” more intense than any other in your life, but you’re not allowed to pursue your dream because, on that day, you’re not “mentally sound”.

I don’t believe that your mental health at seventeen or eighteen is definitively reflective of your likelihood to commit suicide as a practicing vet five, six, seven, ten, twenty years down the line. It certainly has an impact but I think having £100,000 student debt, earning half as much as a doctor, having to kill animals and break people’s hearts on a daily basis whilst in a building full of lethal drugs and firearms probably has a greater impact on a vet’s disposition to commit suicide.

Harriet Mullan, who is a consultant adolescent psychiatrist in London, said screening would unhelpful and “discriminatory”. The legality of such discrimination that is not based on professional or academic grounds is somewhat questionable, it turns out.

Dr Allister is regarded as the expert on this topic within the veterinary world and to advance my argument it would be simplest to link you to her Twitter feed, but the main point is that there is “NO EVIDENCE that pre-screening vets or vet students for mental health, suicide, or personality, will reduce suicide rates” and that screening will be a waste of money better spent on support and will almost certainly drive up the suicide rate as it will reduce people’s perceived ability to speak to people about getting support. She calls for greater support for vets, allowing them to talk about stress and their own mental state as well as trying to tackle the issues that cause vets to undergo such stress in the first place.

Suicide of any kind is devastating; institutionalised suicide is just mortifying. We, everyone involved with the profession, need to work hard and relentlessly until we can stop any and every work-related suicide in our community. We must strive to make it better, not to do so is simply not good enough.


Vetlife is a 24 hour, 365 day a year confidential helpline charity that provides support to everyone in the veterinary profession. https://www.vetlife.org.uk 0303 040 2551

Students can talk to Student Nightline confidentially, between 18:00 and 08:00 each night of term time on 0207 631 0101 http://nightline.org.uk


This article was first published by the Association of Veterinary Students UK and Ireland, you can view it on their website here: http://www.avsukireland.co.uk/recent-news/5/7/2017/opinion-screening-sixth-formers-to-curb-suicide-rates-among-vets-just-cant-be-the-answer

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