© 2023 MJH Life Sciences™ and dvm360 | Veterinary News, Veterinarian Insights, Medicine, Pet Care. All rights reserved.
When an associate is in a dark place
How much is too much when asking about a troubled doctors personal problems? And what can a practice owner do to help? This what if? scenario uncovers big questions for veterinary professionals.
Alliance/stock.adobe.comEditor's note: This article deals with issues of suicide, depression and mental health. If you're experiencing feelings of depression or suicidal ideation, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK; 800-273-8255; suicidepreventionlifeline.org). It's available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. No matter what problems you are dealing with, people on the other end of the line will help you find a reason to keep living.
The 62-year-old Dr. Carl Sweet employs six veterinarians and a total staff of 42, with no plans to retire. He has a capable team, but he remains the hands-on leader in all facets of the practice. His associates are highly skilled, and he encourages their autonomy by not micromanaging their daily cases. However, one of those associates, Dr. Sheila Case, has caught his attention.
She has been with the practice for three years and is an excellent clinician, but Dr. Sweet finds out that she's started coming in late to work and that her mood has changed. Dr. Sweet prides himself on maintaining a professional work atmosphere and not intruding in the personal lives of his staff. In this instance, he feels it's appropriate to speak to Dr. Case about these changes.
He arranges a meeting with her and brings up the issues of concern, and the young veterinarian is very frank with him. She explains she's had experienced some difficult personal life events and is facing mounting financial issues. She tells Dr. Sweet that she's been sleeping more and going to what she calls a “dark place.” She tells him that she hopes that she can keep her job and that she'll make every effort to resolve the issues at work. Dr. Sweet tells her he understands and will help her any way he can.
Dr. Sweet has never encountered an issue of this nature with any of his staff members before, and he finds he's upset after the meeting. If an employee suffers an animal bite, he knows just what to do. But Dr. Sweet worries that trying to address mental health issues for an employee would violate her privacy. He wonders if a generic offer to help is enough.
Is she depressed? he wonders. Will Dr. Case hurt herself? Then Dr. Sweet thinks about the clinic's controlled substances with lethal potential. He schedules another meeting with Dr. Case and tells her that after their previous conversation he wants to offer her more assistance. He suggests he can arrange an appointment with a mental health care professional while maintaining strict confidentiality. She thanks him for his concern but declines further help.
What did Dr. Sweet find?
Dr. Rosenberg's hypothetical practice owner was disappointed in the resources he uncovered to help his struggling associate. In the past few months and years, we've gathered information he might have found helpful. We hope it's helpful to you:
• A list of national and state-by-state resources for those struggling with mental health issues.
• Recent article “When a friend is hurting, surely there's more than a suicide hotline,”pointing to some advice and online groups for support.
• Burnout, compassion fatigue and depression-learn about different mental health issues facing veterinary professionals.
Dr. Sweet feels he's done all he can now to assist the young veterinarian and hopes she'll get help on her own. He also reaches out to his state veterinary association to see if there are resources available to help in situations like this, and he's disappointed to find out that only reactive programs for veterinarians fighting substance abuse and depression are available. There are no proactive, pre-intervention programs. He decides to just continue being vigilant and checking his controlled substances log to make sure nothing goes missing.
Did Dr. Sweet do all that he could for his colleague? Email us and let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Rosenberg's response
It's certainly distressing to know that the suicide rate among veterinarians is three times the national average. A combination of factors, not the least of which is access to controlled dangerous substances, accounts for this unfortunate statistic. The AVMA has recognized and prioritized this issue by offering mental wellbeing resources to its membership. This, however, may not be enough. The combination of workplace pressure, emotional distress and monetary debt can only be helped so much by healthcare programs. Those working in veterinary hospitals themselves must help by recognizing and correcting workplace stressors that can negatively affect the mental health of veterinary professionals. The veterinary workplace should be a comfort zone, not a pressure cooker.
Dr. Marc Rosenberg is director of the Voorhees Veterinary Center in Voorhees, New Jersey. Although many of the scenarios Dr. Rosenberg describes in his column are based on real-life events, the veterinary practices, doctors and employees described are fictional.