New resource helps teams cope after the suicide of a colleague

The fact that people in the veterinary profession are at a greater risk of suicide isn’t new. But that doesn’t make it any less shocking or traumatic for coworkers when it happens.

A new resource for owners and managers can help team members recover from the loss.

Produced by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, the AVMA, the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA), the Veterinary Hospital Managers Association (VHMA), and the Veterinary Medical Association Executives, After a Suicide: A Guide for Veterinary Workplaces is a free guide to help support veterinary workplaces in the aftermath of an employee’s death by suicide.

An employee’s suicide has a deep and disturbing impact on survivors, including coworkers. Managers who have had to support and comfort employees in the wake of such a tragedy understand the importance of offering grief counseling and other actions to support employees, mitigate the impact of the trauma, and prevent further loss.

Developed by experts in veterinary medicine, suicide prevention, and survivors of suicide loss in the veterinary medical community, the guide includes:

  • Best practices for how workplace leaders and staff should respond in the immediate aftermath of a suicide
  • Guidance on helping the workplace community grieve and cope in the short- and long-term
  • Tips on working with media and community partners
  • Important information on how to safely memorialize employees and to identify and support members of the community who may be vulnerable to reduce the risk of suicide contagion

Perhaps most importantly, the publication provides guidance and tools for postvention, an intervention for team members including exercises and activities to help them cope with the loss and to help stem the potential for suicide contagion.

NEWStat talked to Rebecca Rose, CVT, past president of NAVTA, member of VHMA, former practice manager at two AAHA-accredited hospitals, owner of Catalyst Veterinary Professional Coaches, a veterinary consulting firm, and a member of the workgroup that produced the guide.

Rose had been talking with hospital managers concerned about the effects of a staff member’s suicide on the rest of the team since the early 2000s, when studies first began to indicate the high rate of suicide in the profession among veterinarians and technicians.

“Most of the initial studies were done on veterinarians, but we knew that we were at high risk for suicide,” Rose said. “So I started having that conversation . . . saying, ‘Guys, we need to have an understanding as practice managers—how is this impacting our teams?’”

“I don’t look it as it is a mental health issue,” Rose added. “I look at as a veterinary professional challenge.”

Rose says she was getting calls on a quarterly basis from practice managers who told her they’d just had a suicide on their team and wanted to know how to handle it.

The new guide has those answers.

Rose says they worked hard to make sure the guide is geared toward hospital management to give people in leadership roles guidance on what to do in case of a staff suicide. “And what not to do,” Rose added. “That’s as important as what to do.”

She says that she’s seen hospitals take misguided steps that can boomerang and continue suicide contagion. The biggest culprit? Idealization.

That can happen when staff idealizes the deceased staff member and leads to thoughts among the living that suicide is acceptable. And idealization usually happens through memorialization: the very human urge to honor a dead colleague.

Rose says the guide discusses the link between suicide contagion and memorialization, and why hospitals need to discourage it.

The overarching advice is to avoid focusing on only the strengths of the deceased, and to remember or talk about them in a balanced manner by acknowledging the struggles and issues the person was going through. In this way, suicide won’t be misinterpreted as a solution for others.

Rose admits it sounds harsh and goes against the grain for many, but that’s the most important takeaway.

She knows that not making a big deal out of the fact that someone you know and work with has committed suicide is difficult. “It’s very counterintuitive,” she concedes. “[But] there are a lot of things that we do counterintuitively because of our practices, our traditions, our religions, and [our] cultures.”

But those things don’t usually up the odds that someone else on staff will consider suicide as a viable option.

Rose can’t stress it enough: the biggest contributing factor to spreading suicide contagion in a hospital is honoring a team member who committed suicide.

“That’s idealization,” Rose says. “And that’s not where we want to go.”

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