April 2021

In this VETgirl online veterinary continuing education blog, VETgirl’s Chief Happiness Officer, Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LCSW, clinical veterinary social worker, discusses why how we talk about suicide in veterinary medicine matters.

Why How We Talk about Suicide Matters

Social media is bubbling with posts about suicide within the veterinary community. I’ve noticed familiar threads running through these posts: the shock and grief of another life lost, the thrum of anger and desperation. It’s painful and palpable when loss touches us, whether directly or indirectly, and it often feels personal. This is our community. These are our people.

Our mammalian responses to loss are varied: sometimes we get small and quiet in order to manage the overwhelm. Sometimes we get big and loud (because if we don’t, will we ever be heard?). Sometimes we feel numb, because the losses keep coming, particularly in this year of saturating tragedy. Sometimes, we reframe the problem as someone else’s fault. Our response can change by the moment and by the day. All of these options are perfectly human.
And here’s the challenge: how we work through the reality of grief and anger is deeply personal, and how we communicate around this intersection is deeply impactful. How we talk about suicide, both in the veterinary community and in the larger community as a whole, matters more than most of us recognize. Let’s break it down.

What we want to do: Our responses to loss are myriad (we can cry, ignore, rescue, help, push away, educate, innovate, idealize, and even demonize… the options are endless). Emotions are messages communicating what is needed to restore balance and security for ourselves. As such, there’s no such thing as a wrong emotion – that’s the good news. However, there is such a thing as an unhelpful or counterproductive behavioral response to feelings. So before acting on an emotion welling up inside you, remember to pause and care for yourself first. Sit quietly and breathe. Soothe your own visceral response to loss. Connect with someone who loves you. Ask for help, particularly if the news is touching on your own struggles in some way.

What we should keep in mind when speaking, writing, and sharing: Collective grief and anger can be projected onto the wrong target (such as rude/demanding clients) because blaming externalizes the helplessness we don’t know how to manage otherwise. It is really important to be wary of this type of messaging because blaming oversimplifies the problem. Evidence suggests that suicide is a complex phenomenon with multiple overlapping factors (this is true within the veterinary community as well as outside of it). Before “liking” or forwarding social media content about suicide, be alert that blaming others and/or framing the rich and complicated discipline of vet med as an inherently troubled one may actually reinforce a sense of hopelessness, particularly for those who are already feeling vulnerable and alone. Further, we are wise to remember the very real risk of “suicide contagion,” which is when direct or indirect exposure to messaging about suicide and suicidal behavior can increase suicidal behavior in persons at risk for suicide. When we misrepresent why suicide happens, idealize those who have died by suicide, and/or contribute to a narrative that focuses only on struggle and pain, we are at risk of contributing to the very problem that scares us.

And what we can do instead: We can educate ourselves about the suicide epidemic in this country, which has been growing in just about every demographic for the past 30 years. We can also develop the skills necessary for supporting those in our midst who are not only in crisis but in early stages of struggle. The good news is that evidence-based ‘gatekeeper training’ is both effective and widely available. Within the veterinary community, this type of training is being made available at no charge through multiple venues (see below for links). This type of training helps us to see and support one another more effectively, and it demystifies a process of engagement that we may otherwise avoid because we are afraid of saying the wrong thing.

Additionally, we can live into the legacy of those we have lost by doing more – and better – at caring for our tender-hearted and passionate selves. This includes treating ourselves and one another with respect; protecting veterinary professionals’ need to be whole human beings with full and rich lives including, but not limited to, the work they love; advocating for more humane business practices that attend to the many intersecting (and valid) needs of workers, patients and clients; developing and enforcing healthy boundaries; and developing both mental health literacy and affordable, widespread access to mental health care. And last, we can spread resources like the seeds of hope they represent. Death by suicide is both tragic and preventable. There is help, and there is always hope.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 800-273-8255 or text TALK to 741741.

Additional Resources:
Suicide in veterinary medicine (Free VETgirl webinar)

Question, Persuade, Refer Training (QPR), courtesy of AVMA

Ask, Support, Know Training (ASK), courtesy of VetFolio in partnership with Banfield Pet Hospital:

Best Practices for Suicide Postvention for Veterinary Workplaces and Veterinary Colleges

  1. Thank you for this article. Working in this industry can be overwhelming and draining at the best of times. Constantly dealing with death is very difficult especially for those like me who suffer from mental health issues. Now with a pandemic, things just seem to be so much more difficult.
    I work full time in medical research and part time at a vet emerg clinic. I found myself crying over the euth of a cat last weekend that I didn’t even know at emerg likely because of the pressures of life and all that is going on.
    Family cannot even begin to understand how stressful this industry is, especially now.
    My daughter also suffers from mental health disease and has come very close to suicide twice. Her father lives in denial like the rest of his family that she has difficulties with life, again, especially now with Covid.
    Thanks for this post, it is very helpful for myself as well as my daughter and all of the vet medicine professionals that are struggling in silence right now.

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