Depression and suicide in animal care workers.
So many wonderful veterinarians, vet techs, shelter and rescue staff, trainers, and other animal care and welfare workers have died of suicide. We discuss this unspoken phenomenon and share ways we can all help.
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.
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. High levels of self-criticism are often associated with high levels of depression.”
We deserve the same level of compassionate care that we give to animals.
We do not need to be perfect or give until we are empty in order to earn our self care
We can get 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.
We must help each other, we can do this 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.