Pete Wedderburn, better known as ‘Pete the Vet’, has spoken out about suicide rates in the veterinary profession.
The small animal vet, who set his sights on this career path when he was five and qualified in 1985, appeared on Claire Byrne Live on RTÉ 1 earlier this week.
He told viewers that globally, the suicide rate of vets is around four times the national average.
In his view, “many people have an idealised view of working with animals, and the job of being a vet”.
He stated that many stresses are involved, with one of the “tragic” consequences being the suicide rate cited above.
Suicide rates in veterinary
During the seven-minute interview, he said: “I think that people tend to have a nostalgic view of what it is to be a vet because people love animals.”
“We grew up with this concept of petting animals, spending time with them, and it’s all lovely.”
The qualified vet – who has decades of experience – believes what is missing from that is the “hard truth”. He said it is a “tough” life, and it is “very stressful”: emotionally, intellectually and financially.
“Timewise, it is very, very difficult for vets to live a balanced life with enough time off to gather themselves from a busy day.”
He said the consequence is that the suicide of vets is around about four times that of the general population.
“That’s about twice the suicide rate of medical doctors,” he told Byrne.
“That is not Ireland, that’s global; that’s around the world. It’s well-known in the veterinary profession; we’ve known this for decades.”
He pointed to James Herriot’s collection of All Creatures Great and Small books. “He himself wrote those books as he was recovering from being hospitalised for clinical depression.
“That wasn’t publicised at the time because back then, in the 1960s. It wasn’t done to talk about mental health in that kind of very specific way.”
“I’ve been qualified for over 30 years now, and on average, I’ve lost a friend about every five years to suicide, including my best friend from college – I was best man at his wedding.”
“Very, very, sadly, this happened when he was in his mid-thirties. He took his own life.”
“I look back on that incident, and I remember him working every hour he had. He was working 60-hour weeks, and even he wasn’t working, he was on call. He was on call weekends and nights.”
“What that meant was that when his life hit a rocky patch for personal reasons. He had used up all of his emotional resilience, and he just couldn’t cope, and that’s typical.”
“You can find yourself as a vet walking out of a consult room and bursting into tears.”
He said the public does not see that because it’s “not seen as professional to be so emotionally involved”.
“But when you’re witnessing the dreadful grief that people go through, it’s very, very hard to not feel that yourself, and so you need to find ways of dealing with that.”
“I have to say as well that one of the other factors that they talk about within the profession as to why the suicide rate is so high is that every day, we euthanise animals; it’s part of what we do.”
So, we know how to do it very, very effectively, and we also know how to use the thought processes and languages to justify death.
“So, we will say things like: ‘She’s not enjoying life anymore, we are taking her difficulties away from her, we are giving her peace’.”
“And so, it’s not a big thought process. If you are very low yourself, to turn that around and to use that same thought process on yourself.”
“As a vet, you know how to end life peacefully and painlessly. You can justify it, and you have the physical means to do it.
Be kind to vets
Pete urged the public to “please be kind to your vets”. “It can be very upsetting for people when animals are very ill and when animals die,” he pointed out.
He said that sometimes vets are the target of redirected anger and grief.
“And for vets who are very sensitive, and many vets are very sensitive, that can be an extra stress which can push them a bit too far sometimes,” he warned.
“And those considering going into the veterinary profession should think about this side of the work,” he added.
Concluding, he stated that the Veterinary Council of Ireland and Veterinary Ireland have been “very proactive” in attempting to tackle the issues of veterinary stress and suicide.
Suicide rates in veterinary: