Veterinary suicide: ‘It is my passion and my poison’

Walsall vet Richard Hillman Credit: ITV News Central

It is my passion and my poison. Every day I come to work it's a privilege to do this job. Sometimes that passion can become overwhelming and I need to have learnt to regulate that so that the poison doesn't kill me.

Dr Richard Hillman, vet

An ITV News Central investigation has found a dramatic increase in the number of veterinarians reaching out for help with their mental health.

In the last few years, the number of people contacting charity Vetlife, which offers mental health support for vets, has more than quadrupled.

1,285

Number of people contacting the Vetlife Helpline in 2016

312

Number of people contacting the Vetlife Helpline in 2014

Research has shown that the suicide rate among vets is nearly four times higher than that of the general population, and almost double that of doctors and dentists.

Steps have been taken to address it, but the reasons why the suicide rate is so high are still being widely debated.

Richard Hillman has worked as a vet in the West Midlands for 35 years and has set up six successful practices in Walsall.

However, around five years ago, the pressure of managing the business became too much and he thought about taking his own life:

Richard was diagnosed with depression and has since found help through his GP. He believes there is still a lot of stigma surrounding mental health, and hopes by speaking about it, it will encourage others to do the same and seek help.

It is still being debated as to why suicide rates are higher among vets. Dr Rosie Allister, who is the manager of Vetlife Helpline, has researched veterinary wellbeing at The University of Edinburgh.

Rosie believes there are a number of reasons why vets may experience mental health problems:

Ultimately, it is up to the employer to look after the wellbeing of their staff. However, various organisations have come together to try and offer support to vets who may be struggling.

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) - the regulatory body for veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses in the UK - has invested £1million into a five-year project called Mind Matters. The initiative aims to improve the mental health and wellbeing of those within the veterinary industry.

Chair of the Mind Matters Initiative, Neil Smith, told us about some of their plans:

Furthermore, at the beginning of this year, the RCVS joined forces with the Doctor’s Support Network to launch the ‘&me’ campaign.

It aims to tackle the stigma surrounding mental health by encouraging prominent members to speak about their own experiences.

A Department of Health spokesperson told us:

This Government is determined to address the struggles faced by people with mental ill health, and our new suicide prevention strategy specifically identifies veterinary workers as one of the occupational groups at higher risk of suicide.

Department of Health spokesperson

Organisations who can offer mental health support for vets:

  • Vetlife: For confidential support members of the profession can call the Vet Helpline on 0303 040 2551 where calls are answered 24-hours a day by trained volunteers who have experience of the profession. Alternatively, they can use a confidential email service which can be accessed through https://helpline.vetlife.org.uk.

  • The Samaritans operate a service 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, if you want to talk to someone in confidence.

Click here more coverage of mental health stories by ITV News Central.