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A Suicide Support Resource for Veterinary Workplaces

A guide released by suicide prevention and veterinary medical organizations is designed to help professionals affected by a colleague's death by suicide.

Patricia WuestVice President of Media Strategy, NAVC

A Suicide Support Resource for Veterinary Workplaces
The message of “After a Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces”: Veterinary teams need critical support when a colleague dies by suicide and to help prevent future deaths by suicide. Photo: Shutterstock.com/Dragana Gordic

Every September there is a grim reminder about the suicide rate in the veterinary profession: Nearly 400 veterinarians died by suicide between 1979 and 2015, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study published in 2019 in JAVMA. The CDC analyzed more than 11,000 veterinarian death records during that time period.

The reason for the disproportionately high suicide rate among the roughly 70,000 veterinarians in the U.S. are the job challenges they face, according to the CDC. The study also found that female veterinarians are up to 3.5 times more likely to kill themselves than members of the general population.

In 2020, during National Suicide Prevention Month, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), in partnership with the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA), and the Veterinary Medical Association Executives (VMAE), released a new resource, “After a Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces.” This free guide was created to help support veterinary workplaces in the aftermath of an employee’s death by suicide.

“Supporting veterinary medical professionals in the aftermath of a colleague’s suicide is vital,” Dr. Christine Moutier, AFSP chief medical officer said in an AVMA press release. “Because suicide loss survivors can develop significant grief and even physical and mental health issues if not appropriately supported, postvention is a critical step and is actually part of suicide prevention. The appropriate handling of the aftermath of a suicide in a veterinary office can pave the way for a workplace culture that is smart about mental health.”

Simon Platt, BVM&S, FRCVS, DACVIM (Neurology), DECVN, editor-in-chief of Today’s Veterinary Practice (TVP) and professor of neurology and neurosurgery at the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says that it’s critical that veterinary professionals are able to process grief and get the support they need, no matter what has caused the loss. “Loss has touched us all in some shape or other, whether that loss is of a family member or colleague and how that loss occurred doesn’t change the overwhelming responses we call grief,” says Platt. “Just like a loss within our immediate family, the loss of a co-worker can stop time. It is a body blow that aches indefinitely. How we respond internally and as part of a support system for those around us is supposedly innate but we are so often looking for guidance on what, how and when we act to help ourselves and those around us through the darkest of days. The emptiness can lead to a feeling of uselessness at a time when our natural instinct is to provide comfort and an explanation for the inexplicable. The loss of one of ‘us’ starts permanent ripples which spread farther and deeper than we often know.”

Providing Resources

The resource guide was designed to help provide that guidance. “At a time when people across our society, including veterinarians and their staffs, are experiencing great stress, I am very grateful to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention for their expertise and collaboration in developing this essential mental health resource for our members,” said Dr. Douglas Kratt, AVMA president, in the press release. “The guide will ensure that our members and their teams get the critical support they need in the event of a colleague’s suicide death, and help to prevent future deaths by suicide.”

In many veterinary practices, team members are more than coworkers — they often consider themselves to be family, says Dr. Kate Boatright, VMD, TVP’s Finding Balance columnist and associate veterinarian at NVA Butler Veterinary Associates and Emergency Center. “In the event of an unexpected death of a coworker, especially due to suicide, the shockwaves experienced by the veterinary team cut deep,” she says. “The burden that is placed on the shoulders of the management as they simultaneously deal with their grief and support their team through their own grieving process is immense. This guide will help to relieve some of that burden and guide the team forward.”

That burden includes can be deep and disturbing, Michelle Gonzales-Bryant, CVPM, VHMA President, said in the press release. “Managers who have had to support and comfort employees in the wake of such a tragedy understand the importance of offering grief counseling and other actions to support employees, mitigate the impact of the trauma, and prevent further loss,” she said. “‘After a Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces’ is a valuable management resource and much-needed guide because it provides comprehensive, empathetic, and step-by-step responses to these devastating and heartbreaking events.”

The guide includes:

• best practices for how workplace leaders and staff should respond in the immediate aftermath of a suicide
• guidance on helping the workplace community grieve and cope in the short- and long-term
• tips on working with the media and community partners
• important information on how to safely memorialize employees and to identify and support members of the community who may be vulnerable and reduce the risk of suicide contagion

To view the guide: https://afsp.org/veterinarians

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