Legislative Council: Wednesday, June 28, 2023


Matters of Interest

Veterinarian Suicide Prevention

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (15:24): In 2019, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association published a special report entitled 'Suicide among veterinarians in the United States from 1979 through 2015'. The meta-analysis looked at the longest dataset ever reported for veterinary suicide and the data presented matched that of multiple reports coming from countries including Norway, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and here in Australia, which stated that death as a result of suicide amongst veterinarians is three to four times higher than for the general population and approximately 75 per cent of those cases are veterinarians under 65 years of age.

Veterinarians, like all healthcare providers, face unique challenges in their line of work. They witness the joy of healing and saving lives but they also experience the weight of difficult decisions, emotional stress and working long hours with fatigue. Until recently, the toll it takes on their mental wellbeing was often underestimated and overlooked.

The number one issue listed in the 2022 survey of 600 Australian veterinarians conducted by a South Australian based charity, Sophie's Legacy, was verbal and physical abuse from clients. Veterinarians deal with emotionally charged situations such as euthanasia, delivering bad news to pet owners, or witnessing animal suffering and abuse. These experiences can take a toll on their emotional wellbeing and can lead to compassion fatigue.

Veterinarians also deal with difficult financial situations with clients who are unable to afford the medical care their pet needs. As a society, we need to have a serious conversation about animal ownership. Is owning a pet a right or is it a privilege? This is a difficult conversation to have but one that I think is necessary in the future.

As a veterinarian myself, working in a country practice for 15 years, I can attest to the long and unpredictable work hours. I was often called out in the evenings and on weekends with limited time for breaks or rest, because the patient's welfare and care had to come first. However, it is also one of the most rewarding professions and whilst vets can face tough times, there are also so many amazing pets and wonderful clients and we should not forget this.

Veterinarians often form strong emotional bonds with their animal patients, as well as with their owners and handlers. While these bonds can be rewarding, they can also make it challenging to cope with the loss of a patient and make difficult decisions related to animal welfare, whether it be a loyal old cat with a degenerative disease or a flock of sheep savagely attacked by feral dogs, dealing with illness and trauma does take its toll. Sometimes, tragically, it becomes too much.

Thankfully, there are many examples of proactive initiatives and resources that are tackling the issue of poor mental health and suicide amongst veterinarians. The Australian Veterinary Association have been instrumental in raising awareness and providing support to vets and vet nurses through their new initiative 'Thrive' and I encourage the state government to support that program.

The South Australian based charity Sophie's Legacy has been working hard on a national public awareness campaign titled 'We're only human' to combat client abuse targeted to practitioners. The initiative was started by Garry and Kate Putland, parents of Dr Sophie Putland, who took her own life at 33 years of age after industry pressure and client abuse became too much to bear. In the United States the incredibly successful 'Not one more vet' initiative has been running since 2014 and has a global reach of over 26,000 practising veterinarians worldwide.

As someone passionate about this issue, I continue to call on the government to collate more data around the number of suicides amongst veterinarians in South Australia. We need a baseline of data to check whether initiatives are making a difference. Whilst there is a suicide register in South Australia, currently access only occurs with the permission of the chief executive of Health. If the data does exist, then I think there should be a legislative requirement for the minister to report to this chamber, or indeed the other place, on those numbers on a triannual basis. The veterinary services bill provides us with an opportunity to do just that.

I advocate that we must integrate mental health and self-care education into the veterinary curriculum, ensuring that our aspiring and inspiring veterinarians are equipped with the tools to navigate the challenges that lie ahead. In conclusion, the mental health of veterinarians is an urgent issue that demands our attention. We owe it to these compassionate professionals who dedicate their lives to the wellbeing of animals and to the betterment of our society. Let us break the silence. Let us foster a culture of support and let us ensure that our veterinarians receive the care they deserve. Together we can create a healthier, more sustainable future for those who care for our animals.