May
2
2013

This post is about spring. And for those of us still in snow country, we will need to just have hope, rather than the actual evidence of winter ending. As you can see by the picture, my daffodils are not going to peek up their leaves through the ground anytime soon.

I found the season between winter and summer at the University of Tennessee, where Mother Nature was caressing the land with her warmth, blowing in the promise of sun, greenery, and infusions of energy. I was there to speak at the third annual International Veterinary Social Work Summit (IVSWS). Dr. Elizabeth Strand and her students created a rich and complex summit with the central theme of "Is there a role for social work in the care and welfare of animals?" I would answer with a resounding yes. And I am including human animals in the answer.

My talk was billed as the "Impact of Euthanasia on the Healthcare Team." In it, I discussed the link between euthanasia and depression in veterinary professionals, and why vets are at four times (!) the risk of the general population and twice the risk of any other medical profession for committing suicide. As this was way outside my area of comfort and limited expertise, I spent a lot of pre-talk time doing research in the areas of veterinary suicide prevalence, depression and its link to suicide, and euthanasia and its potential effects on depression and suicide in our profession. My studies took me into a historical review of suicide itself. The Stoics were in favor of it. Aristotle and Plato were against with few exceptions. In the Middle Ages, a person who committed suicide was dragged through the street and their worldly possessions were taken from any remaining relatives. Indeed, suicide is probably still underreported as some religions still will not bless or bury people who have committed suicide.

In vet school and beyond, the focus is usually on the patient: diagnosing a sick animal, recommending treatment, recognizing euthanasia as a final recourse. We are the only medical profession legally able to end the lives of our patients to relieve their pain and suffering. Euthanasia, in the hands of the veterinarian, is the ultimate health care plan for relief. However, there are very few programs in veterinary medicine that emphasize the potential emotional repercussions for the veterinarian--that teach us about dealing with compassion fatigue or depression. Most of us figure these things out through our life experiences. Euthanasia protocols are based on what our bosses want, our past experiences with death, and all the emotional baggage--good and bad--that we bring with us.

My talk was also a plea to the social workers in the group to find ways to help our profession. Not just to decrease the high rate of suicide among veterinarians, but to help us figure out a way to keep veterinary professionals from drowning in despair due to overwork, demands placed upon us by ourselves and our clients, limited time and/or resources, schizophrenia of business, and compassion fatigue.

Alexander Pope said, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast; Man never is, but always to be blest. The soul, uneasy, and confin'd from home, rests and expatiates in a life to come." It is with this in mind that I urge you to create an atmosphere of understanding in your own work sphere, not only for your coworkers, clients, and patients, but also for yourself. Create protocols where there are healthy discussions when things go wrong and celebrations when things go right. I highly recommend reading and sharing one of AAHA's newest publications, When Helping Hurts: Compassion Fatigue in the Veterinary Profession, by Kathleen Ayl, PsyD.

The spring I found in Tennessee was not just the cacophony of birds singing and the multiple buds bursting with red splendor. It was also about the sign of spring within human souls and hearts. Because spring is not merely a change of seasons; it is also a sign of hope, rebirth, and resiliency.

 

Comments (1) -

C Howland
C HowlandUnited States
5/5/2013 4:51:32 AM #

As a non veterinary professional many thoughts on this very important topic are tumbling from gratitude to the amazing,caring empathetic veterinarian professionals who have helped my beloved animals cross over the Rainbow Bridge and who have made it so much easier for me personally to my sadness that those professionals take such a very burden on themselves with such compassion. I do hope that the model of what Dr. Kate is emphazing is embraced and promoted to ensure the health of these wonderful professionals who we can not survive without.  To a resounding YES hope does spring eternal with a great big thank you.

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