I am going to write about something uncomfortable for many of us. I myself, have struggled and rewritten this article many times. Veterinary medicine is a very special field. Many of us have gotten into this field because we generally care about people and their pets. With starry eyes, we dove into this profession vowing to make a difference out there. And we have, but at a cost. September is Suicide Awareness Month and it’s no secret that there are multiple studies, articles and data regarding veterinarians being a profession plagued by suicide.
Every time I read about a vet who has taken their own life, because they just couldn’t push on, my heart breaks. The grief of suicide has seeped into my life a couple of times. Both times, it was not a veterinarian who had chosen to end their life based on mental illness, addiction or just not seeing a way out of the darkness. It was a member of the support staff. It was a receptionist who greeted clients as they walked into a clinic. It was a practice manager who showed me the type of leader I wanted to become. These people will never be forgotten. If you ask almost anyone in the field, they have worked with someone or knows of a previous coworker who has chosen the very same path.
Pay Attention to the Numbers
Veterinary Support Staff Unleashed is a Facebook group of about 12,100 members. In this group, kennel assistants, receptionists, vet assistants, vet technicians and practice managers come together to discuss our joys in vet med. We also discuss our struggles, of which there are many. I quickly learned that I was not alone in suffering from mental illness and it affects me personally. People share their frustration, hopelessness and stories about coworkers who chose to end their personal pain.
I decided to survey the group to learn more about mental illness and suicide in support staff. I had 618 participants and sadly wasn’t surprised by the results. I first asked about position and longevity in the field then came the tough part. I found out that more than 75 percent of the participants deal with a diagnosed mental illness – a bleak reminder that we never truly know what is going on in someone’s life.
Then I asked how many of the participants in the survey had thoughts of suicide.
Over half of the participants have had suicidal ideation since starting their career. I am in no way well-versed in putting together surveys. This is not a peer reviewed study, nor scientifically tested or scrutinized. But if you look at the answer, take a moment to let this all sink in. Half your coworkers have thought about killing themselves. Members of your team who have literally saved patients’ lives, have considered taking their own.
The Search for Answers
There are several different theories on why mental illness and suicide is a very real aspect in the veterinary team. Some say that the field attracts perfectionists, over achievers and empathetic individuals. Some say that the field of overextending, overworking and caring too much makes us ill. I don’t necessarily know the answer. But I do know this – people are dying. Families are devastated. The impact shakes our community.
We need to begin to look at our coworkers and realize they may be struggling. We need to offer resources and begin talking about the hard stuff. When we lose a patient during a code, we need to begin to discuss how to emotionally process that. We need to begin to address the effect of going into student debt to come out to make barely over minimum wage. We must start talking in our clinics. This is where we must have these conversations. Above all we need to be kind to each other.
If you notice someone struggling, it is OK to ask them how they are doing. If you notice behavioral changes, it is OK to ask if they are considering harming themselves. We, sadly, may not always see the signs, symptoms or know what is going on in their personal life, but we must start talking about it. Not talking about it isn’t working.
If you are struggling, please know that there are people out there that care about you and want you here. We can’t just lay the responsibility on those who are hurting. We need to create a culture where we can broach these topics and help each other. Those we have lost have left more of an impact on this field than they could’ve ever realized. But by talking to our teams, coworkers and colleagues, we can contribute to making an impact to saving our veterinary professionals. We are all in this together. Know you are not alone.
Helpful Resources for Your Clinic
Contact your insurance plans EAP program if you need help or you would like to offer help to your clinic. Many offer free counseling sessions.
Veterinary Support Staff Unleashed Closed FB Group (Support Staff)
Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8255 or chat at: suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat
Crisis Text Line: 741741
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the DrAndyRoark.com editorial team.