Reasons You Should Be Concerned about Suicide in the Animal Welfare/Medicine Industry

Those of you who know me know how much I love my pets. They are key elements in my mental wellness, and I post pictures of them (like these of Rocky and Apache) constantly.  Apache is a rescue and both have been brought through tough times by our amazing veterinarians. That is why this story is so important to me.

Rocky and Apache are good for my mental wellness

Rocky and Apache are good for my mental wellness

When the CDC analyzed 2012 National Violent Death Reporting System data from 17 states, the organization discovered that males and females working in farming, fishing, and forestry occupations had the highest rates of suicide. A recent study conducted in Britain found, “People in low-skilled physical-labour jobs and positions involving caring for others have some of the highest suicide rates.”

One example of a “caring for others” profession is veterinary medicine and animal welfare. Animal rescue professionals and veterinarians fit Thomas Joiner’s model of why people die by suicide: Constant exposure to death and feelings of hopelessness lead to an acquired ability for lethal self-injury, and they have access to lethal means in the form of drugs.

People are often drawn to the demanding professions because of their love of animals, but they soon discover that a large part of the job involves ending the lives of beloved pets and otherwise health animals. In fact, vets come face-to-face with death at five times the rate of physicians. Both veterinarians and animal rescue professionals are witness to the agonizing situation of pet owners choosing to have their companions euthanized because treatment is too expensive or too difficult or because breeding was uncontrolled and the family has become overwhelmed.

The CDC recently conducted the first mental health survey of veterinarians in the country. It included input from more than 10,000 practicing vets. The outcome: Vets think about taking their own lives three times more often than the national average.

Preliminary findings from a study of more than 500 Canadian veterinarians showed that almost one in 10 had depression, and 47% “scored high on emotional exhaustion.”

Dr. Martin Soberano, an international leader in veterinary medicine among small animals (World Small Animal Veterinary Association), recognizes the increased risk factors among veterinarians. But he also warns against stigmatizing the profession. Suicide, he reminds us, is caused by more than one thing, and 90% of people who take their own lives have a diagnosable mental illness that may or may not be related to one’s vocation.

It’s clear that more research needs to be done. Which is why I am working with leading researchers from Dr. Thomas Joiner’s lab at Florida State University to conduct a national study specifically focused on how suicide, depression and other well-being concerns (and solutions!) are showing up in this industry. I’ll keep you, my readers, updated as the process unfolds.

We can all agree that at the most basic level, we need to be focusing on workplace mental health and reducing work-related stress across all occupations. Offering trainings such as Mental Health First Aid , QPR (Question, Persuade, Refer), and SafeTalk (NOTE: I am a certified trainer for the last two) can have a huge impact on employees’ ability to become more aware of emerging problems and connecting coworkers to appropriate resources.  In other words, these trainings and others like them can help our workplaces become more compassionate communities where people can thrive. 

For its part, the American Veterinary Medical Association is addressing the issue head-on. It offers a self-assessment and information on self-care and where to seek help on its website. It also launched two new mental wellness initiatives earlier this year.

Nanette Martin CEO of Shelter Me Photography

Nanette Martin CEO of Shelter Me Photography

One of my favorite animal-focused wellness program was co-founded by Nanette Martin. She is a professional photographer and a tireless advocate for rescue animals and their caregivers. Through her Colorado-based nonprofit Shelter Me Photography, Nanette and her team offer professional photographs of shelter animals to increase adoption rates. She teaches shelter, rescue, and foster organizations how to do this work too, so employees have something hopeful to focus on amid the death and pain they confront every day. As Martin says, “The image changes the heart and the heart changes the mind.”

Nanette believes programs like these don’t only help the animals, they give hope to animal rescue workers; “they help the helpers” by giving them something life-affirming to do with these animals in crisis. The project gives these professionals hope.

When we launch our study on suicide prevention and mental health promotion within these occupations, we will need your help. Stay tuned! Together we can find ways to build emotional resilience to help these helpers so they can continue to keep our animals safe and healthy.

This is my Gandalf kitty kitty -- also a rescue. 

This is my Gandalf kitty kitty -- also a rescue. 

NOTE: Feel free to use this graphic in your own post. All I ask is that you link back to this article or my website: Thank you!


Book me for your next speaking engagement! I bring the stories, science and strategy to the cause of suicide prevention. My multiple points of experience as a psychologist, mental health advocate and person with lived experience give me many perspectives and a pragmatic approach that both inspire audiences and move their feet to action.

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About the Author:

Sally Spencer-Thomas is a clinical psychologist, inspirational international speaker and an impact entrepreneur. Dr. Spencer-Thomas was moved to work in suicide prevention after her younger brother, a Denver entrepreneur, died of suicide after a difficult battle with bipolar condition. Known nationally and internationally as an innovator in social change, Spencer-Thomas has helped start up multiple large-scale, gap filling efforts in mental health including the award-winning campaign Man Therapy and was a recent invited speaker at the White House. Her goal is to elevate the conversation and make suicide prevention a health and safety priority in our schools, workplaces and communities.