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When I was asked to write this article for National Suicide Awareness Month (U.S.), I began wondering how we tell this story differently. How do we move away from the standard of presenting the statistics and discussing what experts around the world say we need to do to save lives? How do we begin the discussion that we are all human – walking this journey together? This is a global issue. It does not matter if you work in the veterinary profession, support the veterinary profession – or if you work in another industry – we all want to know our purpose in life. We all want hope, meaning, and happiness. We all want to feel safe, with a strong sense of belonging, and know we matter. We all want our WHY?

With the advancement of social work in veterinary medicine comes the connected vision of seeing how we develop more collaborative and inclusive systems, with a global perspective leading to changing the suicide rates in this profession and around the globe. As we have come to realize, in the veterinary community, all of us have been touched by suicide in one way or the other. That is our common reality. We must find our way together, with a collective vision, that we can and must work together so we can achieve the goal of changing the culture in veterinary medicine and work toward changing the epidemic around the world. Having a collective aspiration can give power too and promote a shared destiny with others. A shared purpose brings power to our message of change.

Globally more than 700,000 people take their own life every year and there are many more people who attempt suicide. Every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, communities and entire countries and has long-lasting effects on the people left behind. Suicide occurs throughout the lifespan and was the fourth leading cause of death among 15–29-year-olds globally in 2019 according to the WHO. National Suicide Awareness Month (U.S.) exists to bring attention and clarity to the significance of this epidemic around the world.

“Talking about it prevents suicide. There’s no shame in talking.

National Alliance on Mental Illness, 2022

Over the last three decades, veterinary medicine has been on a journey to understand the reality of suicide in the veterinary profession and its impact on the veterinary community. 30 years ago, Dr Elizabeth Strand, founding Director of the Veterinary Social Work Certificate program at the University of Tennessee brought context to the link between humans and animals. As the industry grew to understand more about the human animal bond and its impact on emotional wellbeing, so did the importance of social work in veterinary medicine.  The estimate of social workers now working in private or corporate veterinary practices is 200+, and on the rise.

Just as our profession was gaining traction in the health and wellbeing space, COVID-19 entered our reality. The impacts of the pandemic has led to a crisis in the healing and care professions, and veterinary medicine was especially hit hard. This shared reality has led to uncertainty and has increased the emotional aspects of working in this occupation. In the first year of the pandemic, global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%, according to a scientific brief released by the World Health Organization (WHO) today. New research from Boston University School of Public Health reveals that the elevated rate of depression has persisted into 2021, and even worsened, climbing to 32.8 percent, and affecting 1 in every 3 American adults.

Everywhere I turn the discussions are the same – fear related to where we are headed as a community and uncertainty as to how we recover. We now see those who challenge our current reality as a threat, instead of seeing advocates and potential allyship. With increased demand in our services, we have seen increased emotional impact of loss and increased concern for not being able to control the outcome. The way out is to move past crisis reactivity to a recovery mindset that infuses hope and shared goals. So often, I see the struggle of finding common ground, of listening to each other as we work through these overly complex issues. We have lost our way and need to remember the common goals of kindness, compassion, and empathy toward ourselves and each other. We need to remember our why. We need to work together and see allies instead of threats and remember that only together can we truly create change.

Stop for just a moment and remember your why?  If we can all do that, we will see the hope and the possibility of what the future of veterinary medicine can be. We will find our way back to believing we can make a difference one person and one day at a time.  We will again be able to move forward with a shared vision.

Striving together for A Better World for Pets – and the people who care for them.

The way out is to move past crisis reactivity to a recovery mindset that infuses hope and shared goals.

– Lori Harbert MSW, LCSW, Director, Health & Well-being, BluePearl Specialty + Emergency Pet Hospital


Useful resources

Jon Gordon, Know Your Why talk