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Support for Veterinary Professionals When a Colleague Has Died by Suicide

A new resource to help veterinary professionals affected by a colleague's death by suicide has been created by suicide prevention and veterinary medical organizations.

Kara M. BurnsMS, MEd, LVT, VTS (Nutrition), VTS-H (Internal Medicine, Dentistry), Editor in Chief

Kara Burns is an LVT with master’s degrees in physiology and counseling psychology. She began her career in human medicine working as an emergency psychologist and a poison specialist for humans and animals. Kara is the founder and president of the Academy of Veterinary Nutrition Technicians and has attained her VTS (Nutrition). She is the editor in chief of Today’s Veterinary Nurse. She also works as an independent nutritional consultant, and is the immediate past president of NAVTA. She has authored many articles, textbooks, and textbook chapters and is an internationally invited speaker, focusing on topics of nutrition, leadership, and technician utilization.

Support for Veterinary Professionals When a Colleague Has Died by Suicide
“After a Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces” has a vital purpose: As a community, veterinary professionals can both support and gain strength from one another. Photo: Shutterstock.com/Maridav

Throughout September the nation recognizes Suicide Prevention Awareness Month to help inform people about suicide prevention and the warning signs of suicide. A new resource, “After A Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces,” provides guidance in the event of a death by suicide of an employee within a veterinary practice, hospital, or veterinary organization.

A study by Auburn University researchers with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA), found that female veterinarians were 2.4 times as likely as the general U.S. population to commit suicide and that the rate for male veterinary technicians was 5 times higher. Among male veterinarians and female veterinary technicians, the rates were 1.6 and 2.3 times greater, respectively. This is the first study that also considered suicide rates among veterinary technicians.

In September 2020, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), in partnership with the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA), and the Veterinary Medical Association Executives (VMAE), released “After a Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces.” This free guide will help support veterinary workplaces in the aftermath of an employee’s death by suicide.

“With the current status of the profession leading to higher suicide rates in the veterinary field including veterinary technicians and nurses, members of our profession need resources to help us handle the loss,” says Kenichiro Yagi, MS, RVT, VTS (ECC) (SAIM), president of NAVTA. “The guide focuses on what we could do to actually help and cope, and what we shouldn’t do so we can minimize unintended harmful effects – which then circles back to better suicide prevention. NAVTA is honored to join the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the AVMA, VHMA, and VMAE to release this guide. I’d like to thank Rebecca Rose, who has been the NAVTA contributor to the guide, and a driving force behind the NAVTA Wellbeing Task Force.”

Every life and every being touches another — through love, as family, as colleagues, as industry or business partners, as fellow professionals. We spend much of our life at work with the same individuals, sometimes over the course of years. They become our “work family” and often our friends. In veterinary medicine, depression and suicide has become an epidemic. A suicide in the workplace leaves the veterinary team grieving. That individual’s death sends a ripple effect of emotion and leaves everyone they touched striving to understand.

People in general are not equipped with the resources to handle the fate presented to them. How is a group of individuals who have been a working family expected to continue with the day to day? What guidance is available to help them help themselves, their clients, their community, and their profession?

The veterinary profession is wonderful at preparing for emergencies for veterinary patients. But what happens when we are faced with a loss of one of our own? A lot of emphasis to date has been focused on helping our depressed colleagues and pinpointing the warning signs which signal an individual is considering suicide and subsequently getting them help. It has been wonderful, if not necessary, to see this education and awareness building throughout veterinary medicine. However, what happens when the individual dies by suicide?

Medicine looks at prevention and intervention. Following the suicide of a veterinary team member, it is important to have guidance and resources for postvention, which is a term used to describe activities that help people cope with the emotional distress resulting from a suicide. “After a Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces” provides guidance on having a plan and tools in place prior to a crisis. In the aftermath of a colleague’s death by suicide, co-workers can experience further trauma. There is also the potential for suicide contagion that could lead to further suicidal behavior and deaths among co-workers.

That’s why this guide matter. Among other things, it examines:

• best practices for how workplace leaders and staff should respond in the immediate aftermath of a suicide
• guidance on helping the workplace community grieve and cope in the short- and long-term
• tips on working with the media and community partners
• important information on how to safely memorialize employees and to identify and support members of the community who may be vulnerable and reduce the risk of suicide contagion

To view the guide: https://afsp.org/veterinarians

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