Working with Animals May Increase Depression, Anxiety Risk in Humans, Say Researchers
People who work or volunteer with animals are faced with animal suffering and death routinely, which can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue and mental health issues.
While it might sound like fun to work around pets every day, veterinarians and people who volunteer at animal shelters face particular stressors that can place them at risk for depression, anxiety and even suicide, says a study.
"People who work or volunteer with animals are often drawn to it because they see it as a personal calling. However, they are faced with animal suffering and death on a routine basis, which can lead to burnout, compassion fatigue and mental health issues," said Angela K Fournier from Bemidji State University in the US.
Veterinarians in particular are at high risk for death by suicide, according to a study from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, which found that from 1979 to 2015, veterinarians died by suicide between two to 3.5 times more often than the general US population.
While veterinarians who are dealing with mental health issues may exhibit symptoms common to all populations, such as sadness that interferes with daily activities or changes in appetite.
According to the researchers, increased medical errors, absenteeism, client complaints and spending too little or too much time at work are factors to watch for.
The research team believes there needs to be a paradigm shift in veterinary training to better prepare veterinarians not only for the animal-related aspects of their jobs, but the human elements as well.
The researchers looked at employees and volunteers in animal shelters or rescues and animal welfare and animal rights activists, who are at risk for compassion fatigue and psychological distress.
Over 2.4 million healthy cats and dogs are euthanised each year in the US, most often homeless animals in shelters, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Shelter workers are then caught in a dilemma because they are charged with caring for an animal and they may ultimately end that animal's life.
Research suggests that this causes significant guilt, which can lead to depression, anxiety and insomnia, as well as greater family-work conflict and low job satisfaction.
"Animal welfare agents may also hear gruesome stories of animal abuse or witness the consequences first-hand when they are rehabilitating the animals, which can cause a lot of distress and lead to compassion fatigue," Fournier said.
The study was presented at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association.