One of the most difficult times in my years of practice involved the suicide of a client. I knew the family well, and they’d been clients for years. You can imagine my emotions when the widower told me he suspected his deceased wife had sunk into deep depression after her cat died from a chronic illness while under my care. Nothing else was ever said about that, and surely there were other issues involved. Still, it was very disturbing to hear those words. All of us experience trying situations in practice. It goes with the territory. But the takeaway is to learn to know when we, or a person associated with our practice, become overwhelmed and need outside help.
There are many reasons why people in the veterinary profession suffer from mental challenges like burnout, depression and suicide. Veterinary medicine is a demanding and challenging profession. Yes, that’s a good thing. But, at times the demands can become overwhelming and evolve into a negative force.
In general, veterinarians practice a strong work ethic, are highly compassionate and are sensitive to the needs of pets and people. Again, these are all positive and admirable traits. But, those traits also leave us vulnerable to an overdose by expressing them frequently, intensely and over long periods of time.
Consider the Facts
In a February 2015 article, AVMA@Work reported on a survey of US veterinarians conducted by the CDC. The survey answered this question: “How does the veterinary profession compare to the US population regarding depression, mental illness and suicide?” The results have gotten our attention.
- Serious mental illness/psychiatric disorder, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness are experienced by veterinarians at more than twice the national average.
- Depressive episodes since leaving veterinary school occur 1.5 times more than what the average U.S. citizen experiences during their lifetime.
- Since leaving veterinary school, members of our profession have considered suicide at a rate three times the U.S. national average.
- The rate of attempted suicides by veterinary professionals is below the national average. Sadly, many suggest this is because of ready access to lethal drugs leading to a higher rate of successful suicide attempts.
Watch for Red Flags
We are highly trained medical professionals. We can make good use of our observation and diagnostic skills by being alert to signs of mental illness in those we work with every day.
WebMD.com lists 10 warning signs of impending suicide attempts here. The top 3 on their list are:
- Frequently talking or thinking about death.
- Clinical depression, marked by worsening deep sadness, loss of interest, trouble sleeping and eating.
- Taking risks that could lead to death indicating a “death wish."
“American Foundation for Suicide Prevention” website lists warning signs to be aware of in three major areas.
- When a person’s talk turns to killing themselves, being a burden to others or unbearable pain.
- A person’s behavior becomes aggressive; they withdraw from activities or turn to excessive use of alcohol or drugs.
- Noticeable mood changes like irritability, humiliation or anxiety.
In a recent blog post on “Mental Health Daily,” you’ll find 15 reasons people consider suicide.
What can you do? Where can you find help?
Perhaps the most serious barrier to getting help for ourselves or for a friend is to overcome the stigma we often associate with mental health issues. We must accept on a deep level that mental illness is not simply a personal or professional weakness and that people just have to “get over it.” Instead, mental illnesses linked to depression are real. And dismissing medical treatment can lead to life- threatening consequences.
Keep 5 Tools in Your “Mental Health Crash Cart”
- Take actions to promote a healthy workplace. You can find some suggestions and resources here to get started.
- Learn how to deal with a negative work environment.
In a recent session of “Rounds” on Veterinary Information Network, Michele Gaspar, DVM, DABVP, MA 1 recommended the following three books as good resources to help with this common situation. They are:
- Rising Above a Toxic Workplace by Gary D. Chapman
- Working for You Isn’t Working for Me by Catherine Crowley
- Toxic Workplace! By Mitchell Kusy
- Research and learn the warning signs of depression and suicide.
No one wants to or should dwell on the subject. But, educate yourself enough to recognize it when you see it.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a rich source of information.
- Get perspective from your peers.
How many times have you returned from a CE meeting and realized you learned a lot from talking with colleagues? The same can be true for mental health issues in veterinary practices.
There is a growing outlet, which allows veterinarians to express themselves anonymously, without fear of being judged. It’s called “Veterinary Confessionals Project." You can learn more about it at this link.
- Know where to look when help is needed.
In a recent interview, Gaspar recommended the following steps when a person in your practice develops warning signs of depression or suicidal thoughts.
- See your primary physician for guidance and to rule out possible medical problems such as endocrine disorders.
- Consult with your minister at your church or synagogue.
- Use this website to find local agencies in your area.
- Another outstanding resource focuses on a concept that’s helpful for veterinary professionals.
1. Michele Gaspar, DVM, DABVP, MA actively supports the psychosocial needs of the veterinary community via VIN's Mindfulness Meditation, Job Seekers, and Vets4Vets groups. Michele is a licensed professional counselor and is enrolled in the Adult Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Program of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. She has a small psychotherapy practice in Evanston, IL.