Confronting Suicide in the Veterinary Community

How veterinary organizations and schools are working to address this issue.

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Dr. Brian Jeffries didn’t show up for his 2007 talk at the Oklahoma Veterinary Medical Association’s annual convention. 

Freezing rain that January morning made for dicey traveling to Oklahoma City. The sign on the door of the room where Dr. Jeffries was to speak bore the non-committal legend “Session Canceled.” Gossip soon revealed the reason for his absence, and it wasn’t the weather. 

Dr. Jeffries, 36, had committed suicide a few days earlier. He was the third of at least four veterinarians in the Tulsa, Okla., area who committed suicide from 1998 to 2014. All four were known to be passionate about their work and popular with clients and colleagues. 

The numbers shouldn’t come as a surprise. A 2015 study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that veterinarians suffer higher rates of suicidal thoughts and depression compared to the general adult population. 

Why? Some experts say the drive to achieve that motivates many who choose the veterinary profession can become an unrealistic, perfectionistic ideal that leads to burnout, hopelessness and self-destruction.

Jeffries’ career took an unfortunate turn. A 1996 graduate of Oklahoma State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, he was named the state VMA’s Young Practitioner of the Year and was instrumental in creating the association’s birthing center and surgical suite at the Tulsa State Fair, where a bronze nameplate still hangs in his honor.

In 2006, the married father of three was fined and disciplined by the Oklahoma State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners for abusing controlled drugs intended for animals in his care. He was enrolled in an addiction-recovery program and was on track to share his struggle with Oklahoma veterinarians at the January meeting when he killed himself.

Sad Sequence 

Dr. Patty Gaddis was popular with colleagues and clients alike. She had recently joined a classmate, Malcolm Jacox, at his new veterinary practice location. Before ending her life in August 1998, Gaddis carefully wrote out treatment instructions for several of her patients.

One year later, Dr. Jacox was dead, too. He killed himself four years after he was interviewed by The Tulsa World for a feature story headlined “Vet Living His Lifelong Dream.”

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“I guess I’ve always been blessed,” Jacox said, “because since I was 5 years old I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

His suicide wasn’t the last.

In August 2014, Dr. David Ca-son, 59, killed himself in nearby Wagoner, Okla. He and his wife, Dr. Glynda Cason, co-owned a mixed animal practice, where she continues practicing.

Why the three practitioners committed suicide isn’t publicly known.

‘Not Used to Failing’ 

The 2015 CDC study documented what many U.S. veterinary school administrators have known for some time.

In 2002, Michael Blackwell, DVM, MPH, then-dean of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, urged the hiring of a psychiatric social worker to work with students and teaching hospital clients, said Elizabeth Strand, LCSW, Ph.D.

“We got together and envisioned what a program would look like, and the mission became much broader, aimed at the intersection of veterinary school and practice, and the human needs that would arise,” said Strand, director of veterinary social work and clinical associate professor. Her position is a joint appointment of the Colleges of Social Work and Veterinary Medicine.

Veterinary students are “used to being the cream of the crop and are not used to being with others as smart as they are,” Strand said.

“They’re not used to failing,” she said. “Failing’ to them can mean getting a B instead of an A. A mindset that says, ‘Either I do it perfectly or I’m bad,’ is a mindset that we try to change.”

The gamut of emotions experienced by veterinarians became clearer to Strand in her work with hospital clients.

“I was totally shocked by the number of people who say, ‘I will kill myself if my animal dies,’” she said. “That actually is quite an important consideration, because veterinarians are dealing with those people and that level of emotional upset is quite contagious.

“I am all about calling a spade a spade, teaching students from the beginning what practice is like and giving them tools so they will have the emotional wherewithal to deal with that, without turning it on themselves.”

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Meeting of Minds 

The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges’ Health and Wellness Summit was a joint meeting with the International Veterinary Social Work Summit. Participants who gathered in November at the University of Tennessee included leaders of all U.S. veterinary colleges.

They left with ideas for incorporating personal wellness practices into the curriculum.

“We wanted to role-model the importance of a balanced life,” Strand said. “I think we’ve hit the tipping point, and we’re going to see much more collaboration between veterinary medicine and mental health moving forward.”

Eating properly, getting adequate sleep, drinking plenty of water while limiting alcohol consumption, and getting exercise may seem unimaginative, but they’re the cornerstones of resiliency, said Jennifer Brandt, Ph.D., LISW-S.

“I call these the basics that don’t require money,” said Brandt, the director of individual and organizational development at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“A practice or student doesn’t have to invest in a lot of resources, but attention to these four things can increase a person’s resilience and ability to manage when life throws them hardballs,” Brandt said.

The Tennessee wellness summit was the third such meeting, with the first two hosted by Ohio State, said Brandt.

“We are really focused on reducing the stigma for help-seeking in the profession,” she said. “We want people to see that you can get depressed, and it’s not a character flaw. The reluctance to ask for help is a huge barrier.”

Ohio State’s veterinary college works closely with the Ohio Veterinary Medical Association to make mental health resources and education available to veterinarians, she said.

“At the state level, many veterinary associations are now involved with wellness links on their Web pages and links to other mental health service providers to kind of normalize it, to show what other people are doing and hopefully convince people to reach out sooner before they hit a crisis,” she said.

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Reality Check 

The Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine last August hired psychologist Kate Bieri, Ph.D., to train and assist students and faculty members with grief counseling. “I think anyone who would ignore the statistics indicating the stress so many individuals experience in the veterinary profession is seeking to avoid reality,” said Dan Givens, DVM, Ph.D., Dipl. ACT, Dipl. ACVM, the associate dean for academic affairs.

“Our psychologist has multiple roles within the college,” Dr. Givens said. “She works with individual students, training them in dealing with stress in a way similar to a sports psychologist who works with athletes to perform optimally when stress is highest and handle those situations well.

“We have a rigorous academic program, and we want our students to perform optimally,” he said. “To do that, they have to learn to manage their own physiologic response to stress. Another aspect of her job is working with students who need to see a counselor on a regular basis.”

Strand, Brandt and Givens said shame prevents veterinarians from seeking help.

“They don’t want to be seen as weak,” Brandt said. “We want them to see that they’re normal people, and it’s not uncommon to have anxiety at times and to have depression, but you can still go on to have a successful profession and life if you address it.”

Said Dr. Givens: “I think it’s important for us to work to remove any stigma that might be associated with seeking help. We want students to realize that having a trained psychologist or social worker they can work with is a very wise source of information to help them deal with the challenges that they face.” 

Dr. Wolfe is a companion animal veterinarian at Southern Agriculture Inc. in Tulsa, Okla. Prior to earning her DVM from Oklahoma State University in 1999, she covered business and politics for two Oklahoma City newspapers. 

Originally published in the March 2016 issue of Veterinary Practice News. Did you enjoy this article? Then subscribe today! 

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