In the wake of World Suicide Prevention Day, let’s talk about suicide in the veterinary profession.
It is no exaggeration to say that almost everyone in the veterinary profession has been or knows someone who is affected by poor mental health. Veterinarians face unique challenges and stressors – performing euthanasia being one of them – and have increased access to means of harm. These two factors can culminate in the most devastating of ways: suicide.
Studies have shown that the prevelance of suicide in the veterinary profession is up to four times greater than the general population. And, although this issue is being discussed more, it is not enough. Veterinarians are still struggling due to a combination of not having been taught resilience skills and coping mechanisms at vet school, and there not being systemic support in the workplace.
As a result, many feel alone with only the monsters inside their heads for company.
How can we change this, and begin to reduce the devastating figure of suicide that haunts the veterinary profession?
It all starts with awareness.
Unfortunately, mental health and suicide are still taboo subjects in the profession, which can lead to vets holding in their negative emotions until they become overwhelming. This is what happened to Dr John Dooley – an incredibly successful veterinarian based in Australia. At the age of 38, all the stressors and emotions he had been suppressing opened like ‘a can of worms in [his] brain.’
It is vitally important to have a network of trusted friends and family, whether fellow veterinarians or not (although setting up a support network of those who know what it’s like to be a vet is a great idea). We must begin to discuss the little stressors in our lives more openly, and with kindness and compassion.
Indeed, research shows up to 95% of the general population feel more supported in the workplace than vets do. This is really shocking, but it plainly shows how urgent the need for creating psychologically safe and supportive workplaces for vets is. If you are a veterinary leader, consider how open your current practice culture is. Have you created time and space for your team to share their feelings? Do your team show each other support? Have you created a sense of cohesion?
A great way to instil a sense of support and cohesion is to establish clear values and make them understandable for your team. Emphasise kindness and compassion. You may even put a team journal in the staff room for people to write in, create a space for ‘post it note’ thoughts or create a ‘feedback box’ where team members can confidentially share their thoughts with you. As a leader, creating an open culture all starts with showing awareness of the struggles of being a vet.
If you are a relatively new veterinarian, you should consider seeking a mentor. Mentors are not only a source of clinical support, but they can provide a sense of emotional grounding. Now, this is not to say that a mentor should be treated as a counsellor, but they can provide encouragement and reassurance during stressful times. Chances are, they have been there too and experienced exactly the same things as you are experiencing now.
Finally, ensure you are spending your time in positive ways. There is so much negativity running wild in black holes of the internet, so try to stay away from it as much as possible (unless you are a member of a positive online veterinary network). When you do have free time, make sure you spend it in valuable ways – doing the things you love with your family, exploring new places, socialising, writing, being creative. Do whatever brings you joy. This will leave you rejuvenated and ready to tackle another day as a successful and happy veterinarian.
According to Dr Will McCauley, suicide in the veterinary profession is an ‘epidemic’. The first step towards tackling it is awareness. Yet, this does not seem to be happening fast enough. We still bury our feelings in the depths of our ‘Type A Veterinarian’ brains instead of discussing them.
This is your call to arms. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please talk. If anything, the research shows that support networks are a crutch. Without support, you begin to feel alone and are left to wander towards very dark places. Please know that there is always someone out there to support you, even though you might not realise it.
Here is your challenge: have a conversation with someone over the course of this week that you think might be struggling. Or, if you are struggling or experiencing negative emotions, talk to someone you trust. One conversation could save a life.
Useful resources (credit to Dr Nadine Hamilton for this list):
Lifeline Australia: 131 114
Beyond Blue Australia: 1300 224 636
Suicide Callback Service Australia: 1300 659 467
Mensline Australia: 1300 789 978
National Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Textline: www.crisistextline.org
The Trevor Project: 866-488-7386