One of the best movies of the last 30 years (though some may argue this point with me), is “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.” Yes, under the facade of time travel, best friends, air guitars and some sweet music – okay, so let’s agree to disagree – is a moral message. The boys’ mission through time with a goal to make future society a place where people enjoy everlasting peace and compassion towards each other. I think anyone who works in an animal related field and anyone who interacts with these people (so if you have pets) should take some advice from this small plot point to make other people lives better. It’s like a circle where we can all support each other. “Be excellent to each other.”
Every year, Bell Canada sponsors #BellLetsTalk which aims to help end the stigma around those who suffer from mental health issues and who may be afraid to seek help. This has been a significant problem facing those in the veterinary and animal care fields where depression and compassion fatigue are at the forefront. Compassion fatigue is also known as secondary traumatic stress disorder. While previously noted in human health care workers, it has been well documented in recent years that veterinarians and those in animal care fields suffering from compassion fatigue are more prone to taking their own lives than the general population. Four times as likely which is a frightening number (multiple studies show this). They are also twice as likely as other healthcare professions to take their own lives. There have been many theories or known factors that contribute to this but ultimately and unfortunately we do not fully understand why as each person’s case is different.
A few commonly known aspects are that veterinarians deal with death far more often than anyone else (except maybe a morgue employee). Euthanasia, or a humane & peaceful death, is a common and accepted practice in working with animals. It is both a gift and a curse – we are able to relieve suffering but at the same time some of us can harden our hearts too much or become numb to the act. This can make some of my colleagues feel that taking their own life is more justifiable. This is the main contributor to compassion fatigue.
There are specific traits of every veterinarian, technician, vet assistant, animal shelter worker, etc. First, we deeply care about animals, our patients. If they don’t do well, many vets & staff can take it personally and given our tendency to expect the best, this can leave us vulnerable to depression, feelings of failure, and in the worst cases a person can feel as though they must pay for their failure. Secondly, while we expect perfection from ourselves, it is often also demanded from our clients – the pet owners. We understand how much you love your pets, we have pets ourselves. We do everything in our power to get them back to feeling well and into your loving home. This sometimes can include working 60-70 hours a week, not taking sick days or vacation, and forgoing time with our friends or family.
Sometimes the stress of this interaction becomes more than some people can bear. Such was the case with a New York veterinarian named Dr. Shirley Koshi who went bankrupt, received death threats, and unable to continue running her clinic due to a smear campaign on social media & unfounded litigation, decided to take her own life. This was directly resultant after a good Samaritan brought a stray cat into a clinic that needed care, which Dr. Koshi provided, and a person claiming this cat was part of her outdoor colony led the boycotts and lawsuit. She was just doing what was best for the cat, at her own expense, with her own time. Another high profile loss was that of Dr. Sophia Yin, renowned veterinary behaviorist. Sadly, there are often no answers as to why she and many others have chosen that path. If you were to ask a veterinarian if they personally knew a colleague who took their own life, it’s a fair chance that over 66% of them do. My wife & I both fall into this category.
To wrap this up, there are things everyone can do to help. If you work in the veterinary field: veterinarian, technician, client services, management, kennel staff…be respectful and friendly to your co-workers. If you think they are having trouble or seem distressed, reach out to them. Let them know you are there to talk. If you are the one being affected, there are people that care about you and places you can get help. For those of you who are not in the veterinary field (friends, family, clients), know that we are trying our best for you and let us know that we are appreciated. Don’t be afraid to be respectfully honest with us either when we are caring for your pets. As long as we have open lines of communication between everyone involved, we will do our best for everyone involved – pets, vets, pet owners, and everyone who is working to keep animals happy and healthy. Be excellent to each other; you never know what the other person may be going through.
Disclaimer: Blog posts may contain opinions which may not reflect those of my current or former employers.
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