Suicide: The Elephant in the Room

Suicide: The Elephant In The Room by Dr. Claire Gillvray

How do we talk about suicide and have this be an uplifting positive topic?

It is a horrible topic and I have circled around writing this for a while. Anyone who has been touched by suicide knows the pain and confusion and guilt that comes with it. But we know it needs space. We know it needs time. Because the numbers are going up and veterinarians are struggling.

Female vets are 2.4 times more likely to take their own life by suicide than the general
population and male vets are 1.6 times more likely. Between 2000 and 2015, 10% of female
vets who died had taken their own life. 1 in 6 vets has considered suicide compared to 1 in 10 of the general population.

Suicide is complex. It can be either premeditated or impulsive. Having listened to Dr Rachel Gibbons talk and seen her research from her time working with the British Transport Police and from sitting on many different suicide prevention groups, what we can see is that for most people there has been a triggering event in their past and then when in a pre suicidal state a smaller triggering event leads ultimately to suicide. The individual themselves is often not aware they are going to take their own life.

But this conversation has to turn to suicide prevention. How do we turn this around?

There are two ways of looking at this – on an individual level and on a system wide level.
On an individual level this is hard because of the complexities and individual layers that can lead us to this point. Focusing on good mental health generally through our ABCs can help.
A – avoiding the substances or lifestyles that make us unwell such as alcohol, drugs, late nights
B – breathwork and with that being mindful have been shown to really calm our nervous system
C – connection with ourselves, the world around us and other humans is a protective shield
D – daily routines around sleep and eating in particular
E – exercise in whatever form you enjoy
F – feelings and thoughts and therapy generally, talking about suicide has been proven time and time again to not increase the likelihood of someone taking their own life
G – gratitude and positive mindset exercises have been shown to rewire our brains to become generally more positive
H – help, asking for it when we need it.

We can think a little here about what kind of person generally is attracted to veterinary medicine. They are high achievers often with perfectionist traits. They empathise and care. They will have gone into the career to make a difference. They will have been taught through their careers to give off an aura of calm and control despite situations being traumatic and urgent. They will often have multiple other things going on in their lives because in order to have gained that golden ticket of a rare slot in only a handful of universities, they will also have had to demonstrate a well rounded personality. They will be juggling family, music, art, other businesses, sport. They are not the best at asking for help as they are used to being the ones that fix things. They are not the best at accepting help as they can view that as a weakness.

So when the reality hits of a career which isn’t always rewarding. Where hours are long and
thanks is limited. When we realise we can’t fix everyone and everything. When we take on the pain of others as well as our own. When we aren’t necessarily supported in that. Then we can see how we have created a perfect storm.

So there is scope to think beyond the individual and to think about veterinarian medicine as a whole and how we can help support you and try and turn these numbers around. Awareness is often the start in making a change in a population. Talking about suicide more openly can help us to feel less alone, to stop us feeling like we are going crazy, to give us the option to reach out for help. Providing opportunities for us to look after our mental health can help. Access to spaces like Wellvet and the RCVS Mind Matters Initiative are so important.

But on a wider scale I think we need to take our learning from research into burnout. What we know is that we can relieve our work stress by thinking about 6 key domains:
1. Sustainable workload
2. Choice and control
3. Recognition and reward
4. Community
5. Fairness
6. Clear values and meaningful work

It isn’t just about workload and it is possible to get to the point of chronic stress and burnout from work by working just one day a week. The issues as we can see often come from other areas. If we feel like we get no recognition or thanks or if we feel like there is not a community or team around us then we are more likely to feel that burden of work. Some of these things are impossible to change from within and need to be changed from the top but I do feel like the tide is changing. Vets are leaving their careers and people are taking notice. Mental health is becoming less of a stigma and it is being given a seat at the table. Can you look at this list and see something that could change that would help you and your team feel more supported?

The biggest message from this post has to be that you are not alone if you feel suicidal.

Please ask for help.
Some good resources –
National Suicide Prevention Line – 8002738255
Samaritans 116123
Text “SHOUT” to 85258
Vetlife 0303 040 2551

About the Author

Dr. Claire Gillvray

Dr Claire Gillvray qualified as a medical doctor in 1999 from Edinburgh University. She is dual trained as a Psychiatrist and General Practitioner and has worked in the NHS and in Private Practice in London, Bristol and Cambridge since then. She has raced for Great Britain and Ireland in triathlon as an age grouper and this led to her choosing to do a MSc in Sports and Exercise Medicine. She founded Cognitive Sports Therapy to help people gain mental strength through use of their mind, body and breath. A truly holistic approach to being healthy and strong. She is a qualified personal trainer and nutritionist and has been an invited speaker at a number of veterinary events due to her interest in the mental health of those within the veterinary profession.