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Suicide and veterinary medicine: reflections and resources
Members of the veterinary community discuss life, loss and suicide in the profession.
Dr. Sophia Yin's recent death from suicide offers another example of a disturbing theme in the veterinary community: a high-pressure profession that takes an emotional toll may be volatile ingredients that contribute to the loss of lives in veterinary medicine. While it's impossible to say with any conviction the reasons behind any one particular suicide, members of the veterinary community are speaking out to raise awareness. You'll find their thoughts on the following pages.
Here is a brief list of some free suicide prevention and awareness resources:
• Special VIN rounds session: Dealing with your and your colleagues' stress and depression: Oct. 5 at 9 p.m. Eastern. (Note: The session will begin with a celebration of Dr. Sophia Yin's life by her long-time mentor, advisor and friend, Jim Wilson, DVM, JD.)
• Suicide awareness in veterinary medicine: Should we be alarmed? A free webinar from VetGirl
• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK): A 24/7 resource for anyone thinking of taking their own life or suspects that someone else is considering suicide.
We invite you to share your thoughts with your colleagues. (To comment, just register for free here on our site and be sure you are logged in.)
Heal thyself ... if you can
By Bash Halow, CVPM, LVT
My business partner Brenda Tassava asked me if I heard the news that Dr. Sophia Yin had died. The story darkly coincided with a series of discussions that Brenda and I have had with veterinary professionals who painstakingly confessed that they were exhausted, anxious, feeling hopeless and sometimes, yes, suicidal.
Is it our profession? Some statisticians say yes. In a study by Dr. David Bartram, United Kingdom veterinarians were found to be four times more likely to commit suicide than the average person. In the article the author believes stress is most likely the cause, but that seems a very sterile distillation of the matter. I want to talk about the variations on that theme that may be more apparent to us on a daily basis.
It seems that the very strengths that make veterinarians heroes in their clients' eyes (their deep empathy, servitude and compassion) are the same factors that wear terminally on their energy and emotional reserves. These veterinarians are the ones who simply can't stop working, giving and caring. I've seen them double and triple booked, much to the dismay of their weary staff, who typically end up buckling under the pressure, quitting and leaving the veterinarian that much deeper in case load. Ownership responsibilities pile up on their desk, relationships at home begin to crumble and the vicious cycle winds tighter and tighter.
Do our unconditionally loving patients naturally draw an employee base of highly sensitive and empathetic individuals who are simply more prone to depression or who are more likely to collapse under life's pressures? Many of us have witnessed employees at our practice with drug dependencies. Some of us have had to deal with employees stealing and illegally taking controlled drugs. I had a young girl who cried every time she stepped into my office. Didn't matter what it was about. Sometimes I called her in to praise her. She still began each meeting with tears.
Do you think low turnover is a sign of a good employer? I used to, till I discovered that there was a subset of practices that over time naturally selected for dysfunction. Only those with the lowest self-esteem were the ones who tolerated the owner's abusive, demeaning hysterics. I remember one girl who wrote off every night of drinking with the excuse that her job pushed her to it. I remember another who was found sleeping off a hangover in one of the dog kennels.
I don't know if it's the economy, if it's our predisposal, our gender, our stress levels, our substance abuse, or if it's part of our culture. What I do know is that from the outside looking in, it's intensely sad, so wasteful, and a damn shame. To me the hollow refrains of ‘get professional help' seem out of touch. How does one convince oneself to get help when you're bleeding helplessness?
But I'll share this. For every case where I've seen a professional continue along their own path of destructiveness and ruin, I've seen another turn themselves around. And I marvel at these individuals who have had ... what? The courage? The help? The good fortune to be able to change? This morning, before stepping into the car to go to work, I took a second to look at the arresting colors of fall foliage filling a hillside next to my house. It's a beauty that's there for all of us to see. Why is it that today I saw it for the first time, when yesterday, I had not?
Knuckle-cracking, real-time talk here
By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
This is not about Sophia Yin. I feel the need to say that before launching into a discussion about suicide and depression in the animal community, because the horrible news that she took her own life and the ripples it is causing in the veterinary world is the reason I'm talking about it today. But it's not about her or her situation, which none of us will ever really know; Dr. Yin's legacy is the work she did during her life, and it should remain that way. This is not about one person.
Whenever a tragedy like this happens, I see the same posts over and over: “Shocking. Tragic. Hold your loved ones close and tell them you love them. If someone seems to be suffering ask if they are OK.” And so it goes for a day or two, as we hug our kids and our spouse and our dog and then go back to work and assiduously ignore the suffering of those around us.
... [We've] normalized stress in our lives to the point many of us don't even necessarily recognize the signs of depression in others, and even in ourselves. I sat on the floor of the bathroom for four hours straight one day, when I was suffering from postpartum depression, and still had no idea that sitting on the floor of the bathroom unable to muster the energy to move two feet might be a sign something was wrong (protip: it is). I don't like talking about that time in my life, but I will because every time we censor ourselves from discussing these things we perpetuate the stigma that drives people away from seeking treatment. We are more scared of the consequences of admitting depression than we are the consequences of not being treated, and oh my god, how awful is that? I'm pretty sure the mental health professional community has been watching us in horror for years, waiting for us as a profession to finally say, yeah, we could probably use some assists here.
Want to really do something to make our profession better? Help me figure out how to make that happen.
[You can find a longer-even better-version of this blog at Dr. Vogelsang's website, pawcurious.com.]
“You've got it all wrong.”
By Dr. Ernie Ward
Those are the first words I remember my dear friend, Dr. Sophia Yin, telling me about a common animal training technique I had mentioned during a lecture. That was about fifteen years ago and it still bugs me.
It still bugs me because not only was she absolutely right, but also in that moment I began questioning everything I'd been taught about animal behavior and training. I'm sure she had this effect on many of us during her career. Come to think of it, I can't remember Sophia ever being wrong about anything. That's what makes her loss so devastating for so many.
Over the years Sophia and I collaborated on a wide variety of projects. We always made time to catch up when we were lecturing at the same conference, many times in all corners of the world. Her smile, quirky laugh, and energy always evaporated any lingering jet lag and boosted my mood. We always talked about my Ironman events, her latest behavior breakthrough, and the great opportunities our beloved veterinary profession held. Even though both of us have pushed many vets outside their comfort zones over the years, it was only because we shared the same deep belief that veterinarians can be so much better. That's what I'll miss most about Sophia, her dedication to making the world better for pets and people.
See a full version of Dr. Ward's blog at PetHeathNetwork.