Depression and Suicide In Animal Care Professions: What Can We Do?
[Update: In the years since I first wrote this blog, so many wonderful veterinarians, vet techs, shelter and rescue staff, trainers, and other animal care and welfare workers have died of suicide. What I wrote about Dr. Yin below is for all of them and for all of you who are still here. We love you and you matter.]
Dr. Sophia Yin died last week at just 48 years old. It is a great loss, felt deeply by everyone in the animal care world. I didn’t know her personally, but her work truly helped me be a better advocate for my dog. Dr. Yin was a force for good for our pets. Yesterday it was revealed that she died of suicide.
She is not the only veterinarian to die by suicide this year.
I don’t know a thing about the details of Dr. Yin’s life and I don’t know what led up to Monday’s events. But I feel like losing her in this way is an opportunity to talk about something that matters very much to me: your well-being and how your work affects you.
Compassion fatigue is an occupational hazard of our work with animals, whether you are an animal control officer or kennel attendant in a small town or an internationally recognized veterinarian.
Our work requires that we compassionately and effectively respond to the constant demand to help those who are suffering and in need. This can result in our experiencing the symptoms of compassion fatigue.
If you are suffering, you are not alone and you are not crazy. Everyone who works in a helping profession is affected by their work. It’s normal. It’s a hazard of the job.
As Dr. Naomi Rachel Remen so eloquently says,
“The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”
The symptoms of compassion fatigue are many and each one of us will experience the unavoidable stress of our work differently. But anxiety, sadness, isolation, and anger are just a few ways it might be showing up for us.
Fortunately. we can take steps to manage our symptoms. However, if the symptoms of compassion fatigue are not recognized and addressed effectively, they may lead to depression and a host of other mental and physical illnesses.
And, if a person already has a history of depression, working as a helping professional can make them more vulnerable to compassion fatigue.*
Another factor that contributes to compassion fatigue is perfectionism, a common trait in veterinary caregivers. Perfectionism can add to compassion fatigue-related stress, by exhausting caregivers and reducing their ability to give compassionate care to themselves – one of the very things they need to be well.
A study in the UK revealed that British veterinarians are four times as likely to die by suicide than the average person and twice as likely as their human healthcare counterparts to do so. In the book When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession, author Kathleen Ayl, PsyD writes about perfectionism and suicide in veterinary caregivers.
Ayl quotes equine journalist Candy Lawrence who wrote that veterinary professionals are typically, “…intent on improving themselves and dedicated to putting forth a 180% effort…when they fail to heal, when they fail to prolong the quality of life, this is often perceived as an internalized, magnified, and personal defeat. Male depression due to bed problems can be treated with . High levels of self-criticism are often associated with high levels of depression.”
There’s much more to write on this topic, but I want to stop and say this:
Your life matters. You do not need to earn the right to take care of yourself.
You deserve the same level of compassionate care that you give your clients.
You do not need to be perfect or give until you are empty in order to earn your self-care.
Give to yourself with as much enthusiasm and skill as you give to others.
You can do that by getting help. If you are suffering from compassion fatigue symptoms or you are struggling with anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, symptoms of PTSD, or anything else: seek professional help.
The cruel twist of depression is that its very nature makes reaching out for help difficult. So get help early.
Do not wait until you are in crisis. Do not wait until the pain is unbearable. Get help early on.
Look for a therapist that understands vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue. Shop around until you find a therapist that suits you best (it’s ok to meet with a few different people until you find the person that is the right match for you). See if there’s a veterinary social worker nearby that specializes in the human-animal bond.
Be sure to tell your therapist about your work-related stress, so they understand that your symptoms are, in part, related to the unique nature of your work as a helping professional.
And we must help each other too.
We can do that by being more informed about the emotional toll that this work takes on ALL of us. Learn to recognize and manage the symptoms of compassion fatigue.
We can create a culture of wellness that values taking time for self-care, as much as we value taking care of the needs of others.
We can be conscious of how we stigmatize seeking professional help. We’ve got to take the shame out of talking about mental health.
Getting professional help is an act of self-care. Self-care is critical to doing effective, ethical, sustainable and joyful work.
When I worked at the shelter, I saw a therapist. It helped. Don’t deny yourself the support you need because you’re afraid of what others will think.
I will think you are brave.
What else can we do?
- Read When Helping Hurts by Dr. Ayl
- Visit compassionfatigue.org
- Bring in grief counselors (especially after a traumatic incident)
- Be kind and refrain from gossip and cruelty online and in person
- Learn how to implement low impact debriefing at work
- Make yourselves available to one another and strengthen social support networks
- Speak up when you see someone struggling and do what you can to connect them to help
- Bring compassion fatigue education into your workplace
I don’t know what was happening in Dr. Yin’s life, but I am so sorry that she was struggling and felt such despair. She meant so much, to so many. She was making a real difference in the world and she will be missed. My heart goes out to her friends and family. I hope they take some comfort in knowing that Dr. Yin was deeply respected, loved, and treasured by people and their pets around the world.
You made a difference Dr. Yin. Thank you.
Let’s start a conversation. What else can we do? How can we support one another?
7 Ways We Can Support Mental Health in the Animal Welfare Community
Are You Thinking of Suicide and Other Questions We’re Afraid to Ask
When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession
Pawcurious “We Love You to Death”
NAMI: Suicide Prevention Tips
TIME: The Mystery of Suicide and How to Prevent It
VetGirl: Suicide Awareness in Veterinary Medicine webinar
University of Buffalo School of Social Work Self-Care Starter Kit
Rollin’ With Rubi Still, I Am One
Self Care Is Not Optional (my own experience with compassion fatigue)
My online self-study course, Compassion in Balance, is designed to support animal care workers as they work to increase their well being, while they continue to do good work in the world. Visit this page for more information.
*Please note that compassion fatigue is not a mental illness. It is the name of a group of symptoms that helping professionals may experience as a normal occupational hazard of their work. Compassion fatigue does not always lead to depression. Depression is a mental illness and has many causes. While they are sometimes connected, compassion fatigue and depression are not the same. However, both deserve our attention and anyone suffering from either should be encouraged to seek help.
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