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Surviving thoughts of suicide
One veterinarian's struggle with the pressures of practice and life outside practice, with some pointers to help you through your tough times.
Timothy McCarthy, DVM, PhD, DACVS, practices at Cascade Veterinary Referral Center in Tigard, Oregon, and trains veterinarians in minimally invasive surgical techniques through his company VetMIST.
Dr. Shirley Koshi. Dr. Sophia Yin. I am always saddened by the news of suicide. I have had thoughts of suicide in my life and have been able to get past them. I am now happy, emotionally strong and resilient, and I am thrilled to be alive. At the times of my ideations of suicide, the medical term, I never thought that I could be where I am today. Both times I was at the bottom of a dark pit with no way out. Both times I screamed for help. There is no shame in seeking help. And seeking help does not mean that there is anything wrong with you.
Are there certain pressures you think veterinarians face that might make them more prone to suicide?
I know that the incidence of suicide in veterinarians is higher than other professions or other people. I do not know why or what the hot buttons are. We do work very hard under a long list of pressures, but it is probably more than that. We do not become veterinarians for the money but are pushed all the time to make more money for the practice and for ourselves. This puts us in a money-driven environment when most of us are not money-driven people.
The first time I contemplated suicide was when I was in the middle of a miserable divorce with my first wife that had been going on for more than two years, following a miserable marriage. I was not being allowed to see my son, my father passed away after a long illness, my practice was failing (the whole staff quit one day) and I did not have a meaningful relationship in my life. One evening I found myself sitting in front of the drug cabinet wondering how much more pain I could survive and where was a way out. Fortunately, this made me angry, and I stayed up all night writing a nasty letter to my attorney. The divorce was settled in a week.
How do you get someone who needs help because of depression to admit it?
This is the most difficult step in the entire process. People are so reluctant to admit that they are overwhelmed that many die rather than speak up, yet we think nothing of getting treatment for our physical illnesses. If we have diabetes, we go and get treatment. When we break a bone, we go to a doctor to put us back together. If we have an infection, we take an antibiotic. If we cannot see well enough, we wear glasses. We think that mental illness is something different when it is really not any different. When we are depressed, our brain chemistry is different than when we are not depressed. Why is it so hard to accept this and get medical help? I do not know but I do know that I had the same problem. There was something wrong with getting help for my emotional or mental problems. Then when I decided I needed help, like I said, I could not get there fast enough.
The second time was when I was being beaten up by a big corporation that was determined to destroy my life. I hit bottom when I was confronted with a notice from their attorney that they were going to start collection proceedings to get the $800,000 judgment against me. They were going to send the sheriff to take all of our personal possessions, including our animals. We had five horses, three dogs and three cats. I spent time in a locked psychiatric facility on 24-hour suicide watch.
The steps I took
I had been seeing a psychologist since about the time that my divorce started. Everyone will benefit from seeing a psychologist. Let me rephrase that-everyone will benefit from seeing a good psychologist.
In my first appointment with a psychologist, I unloaded everything that was bothering me. This included things that I did not think that I could ever tell anyone. She just listened. At the end of the hour she stated that I had saved myself about nine months of therapy because she did not have to break down any barriers. I cannot describe what she did, how she did it or why it worked, but I began realizing that I was responding to situations differently and that I was seeing things differently. I began watching myself with great curiosity as things changed. Watching myself with great curiosity became great fun. The process was very positive. It was not difficult or depressing or hard work as many believe.
I learned what drove my temper and was able to reduce it to nothing-or as near nothing as it is possible to get. I found and understood why the relationships that I entered were not where I really wanted to be, and I have been with the woman of my dreams for almost 20 years with a relationship that just keeps getting better and better.
I am a different person than I was when I started seeing the first psychologist. I have a completely different perspective on life than I did before and am able to get through stressful situations much more easily than in my previous life. My episodes of depression and ideations of suicide were situational but were also grounded in chronic depression that I did not recognize as existing.
How have you changed since you've gotten help?
Most of what happened during my saga was learning new and better coping skills for the stresses in life. Another important area is understanding that as individuals we have no control over what other people do. The only real control we have in our lives is how we react to what other people do. If we get very upset because of what someone else does, it only stresses and affects us, not them. We are the ones that suffer. Everyone we deal with is doing the best they can; sometimes we think it is not good enough, but if they could do better they would. If we look at other people's actions with that understanding, it becomes way less stressful and upsetting. We can also only do the best we can, and sometimes that is not good enough. If we accept that we did our best, we can become less critical of ourselves.
The steps you can take
If there is depression in your life or overwhelming situational stress, get help. I am the poster child for someone who vehemently and stanchly felt and stated, “I'm fine and I don't need no stinkin' help.” Then I decided that I did and I could not get to someone fast enough.
Where I am now
I am almost 70 and am having more fun in practice than I have ever had. I am enjoying my clients more than ever, and I am doing new and different procedures all the time. I travel to teach, which is rewarding and stimulating. My biggest question right now is, how can I keep practicing forever because I am having too much fun to quit?