Cooling the Vet Med Pressure Cooker

Ross Zimmerman
September 13, 2023

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week, which is an opportunity to confront one of the largest issues facing every veterinarian, technician, practice manager, and the vet med community as a whole. Plenty have tried to address the issue by talking around it. However, according to the National Library of Medicine, talking about it may be the most helpful thing we can do

So let’s talk about it. Specifically, let’s discuss what we as a caregiver community can do to care for each other.

What Veterinarians, Technicians, and Peers can do to help

Like in most cases with medicine, a proactive, preventative approach always beats reacting once the situation has reached a crisis point. Suicide doesn’t happen out of the blue; there are often signs along the way if we read between the lines.

According to that same NLM article, the best way to respond to a peer in need is to “be there and care.” Talk to your peers, ask how they’re feeling, and be honest and open about your own emotions. Really listen. Sometimes all a person needs is just to be heard and feel cared for. 

Here’s a list of warning signs to look for from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention:

  • Talk of suicide, hopelessness, feeling trapped, or being a burden to others
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs
  • Depression
  • Loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
  • Withdrawing from activities, isolation
  • Aggression, increased irritability
  • Fatigue, sleeping too much or too little
  • Previous attempts
  • Relief and sudden improvement can even be a warning sign

Look for changes in behavior, and check their social media. Most people considering suicide are looking for help and a reason to live. Talking about suicide, even in a joking manner, can often be a red flag that someone is considering or having suicidal thoughts. Furthermore, it’s often an invitation to help. 

If you have a serious concern, ask them to call 988, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If they won’t call, make the call yourself and ask for guidance. Get a professional involved as soon as possible. 

How can Practice Managers and Owners foster a supportive clinic environment?

The best thing anyone who owns or manages a clinic can do is create a safe, supportive environment for their staff to work. Having a team that truly cares for each other and is aware of the early warning signs of compassion fatigue and burnout can make a massive difference. 

Not One More Vet, an amazing organization and the industry leader in this space, offers a program called CLEAR, which empowers clinics to combat this issue proactively. Getting your clinic CLEAR-certified can be a great way to foster a safer and better workplace for vets, techs, and support staff.

The CLEAR program teaches team members to recognize signs of burnout and compassion fatigue before it escalates into a larger problem. Ultimately, the goal is to put guardrails in place and provide a safety net for your team.

"It’s really about inclusion and support. The hours are long, the pets are scared, whether you are a new tech or a seasoned pro, we all need that extra support. I also truly believe it’s hospital managements’ job to strive to create an inclusive, supportive, and positive work environment.” 
- Charlotte Weir, Practice Co-Owner & Texas NOMV Member 

Pet owners can help too by simply being kind

If you’re an industry outsider and pet owner who has read this far, thank you. Your actions may have the biggest impact on this issue as a whole, and there’s something very simple you can do that will be massively helpful: 

Be kind.

Veterinarians, technicians, practice managers, and every veterinary staff member are people too. People under a lot of pressure and stress who move mountains to keep the beloved pets of the world healthy and safe. Too often, these professionals, who are no less than heroes, experience abuse and bullying from pet owners who are extremely emotionally distressed as they cope with a suffering, or sometimes even dying, family member. 

Remember that your doctors and their staff are emotional too, even if they’re putting on a brave face to help you through a difficult moment. Always treat them with the respect and kindness they deserve. You have no idea how big an impact this can have. 

What can I do to help myself?

If you are experiencing distress, there are a variety of resources available and a waiting community on hand to help you. We know you’re used to helping others, which may make it difficult to ask for help for yourself, but there are a number of safe, low-risk avenues out there for you to get the support you need by whatever means you find most comfortable.

  1. Not One More Vet offers a Lifeboat Service, which provides anonymous peer-to-peer support to those struggling with suicidal thoughts and drepression. 
  2. The Veterinary Confessional Project provides similar support through an anonymous message board where you can be heard by a like-minded community without having to put yourself out there. 
  3. If the problem is financial or debt-related, Not One More Vet also offers grants to help lighten your financial burden in certain circumstances. 
  4. Virtual teletherapy through services such as Better Help or Talk Space are both affordable and provide a safe place to talk through issues without leaving your home. There are even text therapy services available where you can talk with a professional anonymously. 
  5. In crisis, dial 988 for the National Suicide & Crisis Lifeline where experts are available 24/7 to provide anonymous support.  
  6. Or text “HOME” to 741741 to reach a Crisis Text line where trained experts can provide you this same support via text. 

A story about starfish

There’s an old story by Loren Eiseley about a young woman walking down the beach, throwing starfish back into the ocean one by one. An old man approaches her to ask why she would do such a thing. The woman explains that after the tide went out, the starfish left stranded on the beach would die. “But young lady,” says the man, “Do you not realize that there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it? You cannot possibly make a difference.” 

With that, the woman picks up a single starfish and throws it back into the sea. “It made a difference for that one.”

The unfortunate truth is that there is likely someone in your life struggling with this very issue. And to that person, your actions make a difference.

Let’s make a difference together. 

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