Suicide-risk vets turn to helplines

Medicine/ victims of stress
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A TELEPHONE helpline set up in response to alarmingly high suicide rates among veterinary surgeons is taking 120 calls a year. A new campaign targeting vets, Britain's most suicide-prone profession, will be launched this month by the Samaritans.

Although that initiative is intended to reduce suicide generally in rural areas, vets are of special concern. The latest figures from the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys, released in March, show that, compared with the average for Britain, vets are three times more likely to kill themselves; farmers, dentists and doctors, traditionally seen as the most suicide-prone, are twice as likely.

In 1992, vet David Wishart helped to set up the helpline. Staffed by 28 vet volunteers, it is completely confidential. The volunteers, like the callers, remain anonymous to spare each other embarrassment if they should meet professionally.

Dr Wishart said this weekend: "Why should vets be more susceptible? Principally, perhaps, social isolation: their eminent position in a community means they tend to hide their problem rather than seek advice."

At least 10 vets contact the helpline each month. Mick Loxam, president of the Veterinary Benevolent Fund, helps to run the service. He said the volunteers were there simply to listen: ""We're not about replacing the Samaritans because, as they will tell you, by the time somebody is talking about suicide they have pretty much made their decision. But by offering a sympathetic ear we hope to help them before they get to that stage."

Nigel Morris, a small-animal vet for 30 years, based in north London, said: "I work a 60-hour week on average.When I started this practice, I worked Friday night until Monday morning without a break, going out to cases and working in the surgery. You don't eat, you drink more coffee: one Monday morning I just collapsed.

"I can see a situation where if I had been a different sort of personality I might have considered walking away - suicide is one form of walking away.

"You are sitting on your own in the surgery, in the middle of the night. You have a case you think you've done wrong. Maybe you did it right but the animal dies anyway, so the owner will be screaming at you. You're on your own. Doctors and dentists have other people around to watch what they are doing with the drugs. We have ready access to drugs and firearms (humane killers). We have a number of items you can take in fairly small quantities and just drift off."