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Suicide in the Veterinary Profession: Warning Signs and Prevention Tips

In a 2016 NAVTA survey, 1.8% of respondents indicated they have had a fellow coworker commit suicide due to compassion fatigue.

Patricia WuestVice President of Media Strategy, NAVC

Suicide in the Veterinary Profession: Warning Signs and Prevention Tips
Several factors could be causing a colleague to think about suicide, including long work hours, work overload, and practice management responsibilities. Photo Credit: Shutterstock|Syda Productions

Veterinarians in the U.S. are at an increased risk of suicide, a trend that has spanned more than three decades, according to a new CDC study, highlighting the need for veterinary professionals to recognize signs that a colleague may be at risk for suicide and to learn how to help them.

As Melanie Codi noted in Today’s Veterinary Nurse in her article When Caring Hurts: Dealing with Depression in Veterinary Medicine, “Veterinary technicians know that workplace stress is not limited to veterinarians. Those of us who work in this field are likely to become stressed and overwhelmed owing to the volume and nature of the work. It often feels like the world is on our shoulders—no time to rest, eat, or use the bathroom; constantly ringing phones; very ill pets; very upset and high-strung owners; and what seems like little appreciation and support from owners, coworkers, family members, and friends.”

In its 2016 Demographic Survey, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) found that “1.8% of respondents indicated they have had a fellow coworker commit suicide due to compassion fatigue.”

According to a 2016 report by CDC, nearly 45,000 Americans, ages 10 or older, died by suicide. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S., and is 1 of 3 leading causes that are on the rise.

There are steps that veterinary professionals, including nurses and technicians, can take when they are worried that a colleague might be at risk. Suicide is seldom caused by a single factor, but some factors specific to the veterinary profession are believed to be:

• Demands of practice, such as long work hours, work overload, and practice management responsibilities.
• Ever-increasing educational debt-to-income ratio.
• Poor work-life balance.
• Access to euthanasia solution used for animals and the training to calculate a dose that could also be lethal in people.

5 Suicide Warning Signs

1) Excessive sadness or moodiness or expressing hopelessness: Is the person displaying long-lasting sadness, mood swings, and unexpected rage, or expressing a deep sense of hopelessness about the future, with little expectation that circumstances can improve?
2) Withdrawal: Is the person choosing to be alone and avoiding friends or social activities?
3) Change in personality or appearance: Is the person showing a change in attitude or behavior, becoming sloppy about his or her personal appearance?
4) Dangerous or self-harmful behavior: Is the person engaging in potentially dangerous behavior, such as reckless driving, unsafe sex, and use of drugs and/or alcohol?
5) Threatening suicide: Is the person telling you that he or she doesn’t want to live any longer? From 50% to 75% of those considering suicide will give someone — a friend or relative — a warning sign. Keep in mind that not everyone who is considering suicide will say so, and not everyone who threatens suicide will follow through with it.

5 Things You Can Do to Help When Someone Is Threatening Suicide

1) If you are with the person, don’t leave him or her alone. Try to remain calm and tell them that you love and care about them and don’t want them to die.
2) Get help from a trained professional as quickly as possible. Encourage the person to call a suicide hotline number (800-273-TALK or 800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor. If he or she refuses, and you are on the phone with them, remain on the line, but text someone else to call 911.
3) If you can, ask the person if you can take them to the nearest hospital emergency room. The person may need to be hospitalized until the suicidal crisis has passed.
4) Offer to go along. Encourage your family member or friend to give his or her permission for you to speak on their behalf to emergency, primary and behavioral health care providers.
5) If they refuse to get help at that moment, ask them to postpone the decision. Tell them they may feel different tomorrow or even next week. Sometimes, the immediate crisis will pass, but it’s important to encourage them to talk. If possible, and if they are not at immediate risk of harming themselves, try to bring up the subject by saying, “I’m worried about you — you mentioned the other day that you felt like ending your life. Do you still feel that way?” Then ask them if you can help them arrange to see a professional.

Learn More

A 2016 Demographic survey by (NAVTA) addresses compassion fatigue in the veterinary nurse profession.

To understand how burnout, compassion fatigue and depression put a person at risk, read Melanie Codi’s article in Today’s Veterinary Nurse “When Caring Hurts: Dealing with Depression in Veterinary Medicine.”

Read Dr. Simon Platt’s Life Without Hope article.

NAVC is committed to bringing awareness to the risk of suicide in the veterinary community. Learn more about the You Matter track at VMX.

Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)