Not so long ago, I visited a most amazing veterinary hospital. It is an architectural beauty filled with an amazing team of people with cooperation and can-do-ism coursing through their veins. (At this highly successful practice embracing Fear Free principles, I witnessed firsthand radiant happiness on the faces of pets, pet owners, practitioners, and the practice team.) When the team asked me to pose for a photograph with them in the lobby, I had no idea that the veterinarian standing next to me, one of the founding partners in his 40s, was suffering from depression.
One month later, that veterinarian in the photo was dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. He had returned from vacation, showered, dressed, had coffee with his wife, walked to the door, and then pivoted on his heels, saying he’d forgotten something, went back into the bedroom closet, pulled out the gun, and ended it. He joined his grandfather and father, who also had committed suicide via self-inflicted gunshots while in their 40s, leaving behind a loving wife and two boys.
This tragedy is no anomaly. A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report claims suicide has risen 30 percent in the U.S. since 1999. The agency also announced it is studying the high rate of suicide among veterinarians, which it found to be higher than previously believed.
My past experiences
Since I opened up a year ago about my ongoing battle with depression, I’ve thought about death. A lot. Not just the death of our pets, having lost three of six dogs in the past year, but also the deaths of clients’ pets. And while I hesitate to put this in writing, witnessing an animal dying, and the resulting grief, has always been harder for me to experience than human death and grief. Hearing media reports of animals tormented or dying stirs my emotions many multitudes more than reading the same about suffering people.
Do I care more about animal suffering than human suffering? Outwardly and inwardly, it seems so. I know I don’t feel like verifying spiritually that what I feel and support is wrong, because it’s so ingrained and deeply felt.
Wanting to die. At my own hand. Even writing this seems disgusting, unthinkable, cowardly, selfish, and pathetic. Why am I prone to suicide, just like my grandfather, uncle, aunt, and father—all of whom killed themselves?
If you’re not familiar with past articles or talks on the subject, there have been six suicides between my wife’s family and mine. Most of those who took their lives suffered from bipolar disorder. I guess I consider myself lucky that I suffer only from depression.
Both of my children and I take antidepressants and/or anxiolytics. We know, that as a family, these drugs, along with counseling and our faith, are necessities for us to function in this world, to handle the ups and downs, and enjoy life.
My dad, diagnosed as bipolar and an alcoholic, was inconsistent in taking his meds. When he started feeling better, he would think he didn’t need them any longer and would stop taking them and start drinking beer. Without fail, he would grow more manic and then more depressed. The family had to witness his resulting whipsawing moods and heavy drinking.
I shouldn’t be able to remember all of the painful memories of his rage, throwing and smashing things, driving recklessly, cursing at my mom, clearing the dinner table with the swipe of his arm, and so on. However, there were amazingly good times, too. My dad taught me many skills that served me well—hard work, honesty, helping those less fortunate, and being generous with time/money/resources.
Amazingly, I never saw him show rage toward or mistreat any animal; in fact, he treated them with a soft voice, a gentle hand, and incredible husbandry and veterinary care. For example, rather than just look at the simple economics of treating an older dairy cow, he would pay whatever bill was necessary to get her healthy or relieve her pain. Our dogs were welcomed into the house before any of our friends’ or neighbors’ pets were, and they were treated as part of the family. Our pets helped stabilize my dad—perhaps as much as the medicine did.
Back to the present
Since I first opened up about my mental health issues and my faith, I’ve had hundreds of veterinary healthcare professionals reach out to me at meetings, via email, and on the phone. Most thanked me for being open, showing the topic wasn’t taboo, and offering encouragement and resources for those suffering.
“You are the last person I thought was suffering,” I heard a hundred times. “You always seem so happy, energetic, and successful.”
“Well, I think I’ve been blessed to be all of those you describe, but I also have mental illness,” I would answer. “I’ve always been able to continue smiling through my sadness.”
People see me as a very happy man; in fact, that’s how I see myself—most of the time. Then, for any reason—or no reason—the switch flips. I go from the sunny side of the mountain to a shadowy cave, wanting nothing more than to be alone with my misery.
Truth be told, being depressed isn’t all bad. Some of my best creative work came when I was at rock bottom. Being so low that I had to reach up to touch bottom has allowed me to search for ways to improve my life. Being knocked off of my feet makes it easier to get on my knees in prayer. When a marriage not only survives but thrives during depression, you know you have a special blessing. I can relate to others’ suffering from mental illness, because I’ve been there, done that, and had those horrible thoughts. And I take on some tough battles on behalf of the profession because other people being angry with me or wishing me ill when emotions run high is nothing like wanting to harm myself.
My longtime publicist, Kathie Kerr, also has depression in her family. We discussed how when a coworker, a family member, or a friend is injured in an accident or has a serious illness and is not working or hospitalized, food magically arrives, flowers and cards flow in, and friends come out of the woodwork. However, when you suffer mental illness, the absence of connection or support couldn’t be more obvious. It’s like you have a communicable disease that people fear or folks are afraid of not saying the right things. That’s where I got the title for this article: “It’s in your head, and the outside seems so distant.”
You can’t help everyone suffering from mental illness, but we all can help someone. Text messages and emails aren’t the way to use your diagnostic skills to look past the obvious to potential problems. Understand, empathize with, and support those who might be looking for a way out.
The next time you see me or anyone else you suspect is suffering, simply ask, “How are you doing?” and really mean it. Make that call, go visit, and take food. Send a card. Do anything to bring the outside in.
If you suffer from depression or suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK, 800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org). It’s 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No matter what you are dealing with, people on the other end of the line will help you find a reason to keep living.
Dr. Marty Becker writes every other month for Veterinary Practice News. He is a Sandpoint, Idaho, practitioner and founder of the Fear Free initiative. For more information about Fear Free or to register for certification, go to fearfreepets.com.