Helping a Veterinary Colleague at Risk for Suicide
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the U.S. and though there is some controversy over the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research that found that American veterinarians have been more likely to die by suicide than the general population, there is little doubt that pressures in the profession, such as compassion fatigue, are contributing factors.
CDC researchers say that the increased risk of veterinarians in the U.S. to commit suicide is a trend that has spanned more than three decades, as we reported in “Veterinarians at Higher Risk for Suicide.”
According to a 2016 report by CDC, nearly 45,000 Americans, ages 10 or older, died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and is 1 of 3 leading causes that are on the rise.
We talked to veterinarians and mental health experts to get their thoughts on this distressing trend.
“Two of my best friends from vet school lost an associate in their practice to suicide and it was a really devastating event for the whole team, says Audrey Cook, BVM&S, Msc Vet Ed, DACVIM, DECVIM, DABVP (Feline), associate professor of small animal internal medicine at Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. “And of course, with hindsight, this person left a trail of clues regarding her intentions, but no one picked up on what was going on until it was too late.” Dr. Cook, who owned a referral practice in Virginia for 10 years before joining the Texas A&M University faculty in 2007, says that being open about mental health issue is crucial. “The more we talk about it, the easier it will become for those in need to find help,” she stresses.
Why Are Veterinarians at Risk for Suicide?
“I think that many veterinarians have very high expectations for themselves and are not used to struggling or feeling inadequate, in either professional or personal situations,” says Dr. Cook. “So, a series of bad outcomes with patients or problems with a personal relationship can seem overwhelming and are taken to mean that one is somehow ‘not good enough.’ Combine that mindset with money worries, fatigue and easy access to drugs and you have a potentially lethal situation.
“In many ways, the personal characteristics that made us want to be vets (caring, thorough, involved, responsible) make us very vulnerable to being pulled down by the challenges of this profession,” Dr. Cook points out.
Lori Kogan, professor of clinical sciences for the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at Colorado State University, agrees. “Many veterinarians fear being perceived as weak,” she says. “Many of these folks judge themselves harshly and feel there is something wrong with them and they should be able to just ‘snap out of it.’ Additionally, it can feel overwhelming to squeeze in one more thing into an overfull schedule, so the idea of getting therapy can feel overwhelming. For many, they are just trying to stay afloat. So, stigma, self-condemnation, and schedule challenges are all big factors in preventing folks from getting the help they need.”
Simon Platt, BVM&S, Diplomate ACVIM (Neurology), Diplomate ECVN, FRCVS RCVS, professor of veterinary neurology at the University of Georgia and editor-in-chief of Today’s Veterinary Practice, points to a combination of factors, including client demands and a lack of respect for the profession, that can lead to a veterinarian feeling overwhelmed. “The combination of the personality type that takes on this job — whether we describe it as a type A perfectionist or dedicated and highly empathetic — the unavoidable failure that we feel when we lose an animal, the high workload, and the increased demand placed on vets by their clients with seemingly less and less respect and understanding all contribute,” he says.
How to Help a Colleague at Risk for Suicide
Helping colleagues in need can be challenging, but often, all the person needs is the support of a close friend or family member to get past the crisis.
“When you think or notice someone is struggling, I advise folks to bring it up,” says Dr. Kogan. “Directly — and privately — ask someone if they are OK. Tell them you have noticed some changes and let them know you are concerned. Depending on what they say — and your relationship to them — you might ask if they have a support system, if they want to grab a cup of coffee or tea, or if there is anything you can do to help.” Dr. Kogan says you can offer to cover a shift or give them a leave of absence. “The bottom line is to not be afraid to bring up the topic and make sure they know you are concerned,” she says.
Dr. Platt notes that helping someone in need can be difficult when you are also struggling with work-life balance and demands. Sadly, he notes, “we have no idea how to support our colleagues — in truth, we are barely surviving ourselves.”
He says that the veterinary community needs a grassroots effort to help prevent suicide and to make it OK to seek help. “We can teach students what to be aware of and how to handle it,” he says. “We should develop a list of national counselors who may have vet training and understand the stresses of the job. There are some professionals in medical counseling fields who have no idea what the job entails and so find it difficult to give effective advice as to how to handle the work-based issues.”
Long-Term Solutions to Bring Awareness About Suicide in the Veterinary Community
“We need to talk about mental well-being and work to remove the stigma associated with mental health issues,” says Dr. Cook. “If a colleague tore his or her ACL, we would be sympathetic and find ways to ease the workload during recovery. We need to think about mental health in the same way.”
“It is an act of strength to be able to reach out and get the support you need, not one of weakness,” emphasizes Dr. Kogan. “We need to normalize the topic. We need to tell these folks, who are often extremely bright and super high achievers, that everyone needs some support sometimes.”
• NAVC is committed to bringing awareness to the risk of suicide in the veterinary community. Learn more about the You Matter track at VMX.
• For insights into this distressing trend, read an interview with Capt. Aaron D. Werbel, Chief of Staff for Healthcare Operations, U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, who is a suicidologist and clinical psychologist.
Dr. Simon Platt’s Editor’s Note, “Life Without Hope.”