Why, you may wonder, is suicide being covered in a blog that’s dedicated to supporting veterinary professionals? Sadly, it’s a conversation that needs to be had. According to a study published last year, 1 in 6 veterinarians in the U.S. has considered suicide, which is four times the national average. Yes, it’s a very sensitive subject, one we might all prefer to steer clear of, but for our individual wellbeing and in the interest of our colleagues, we need to open up the conversation so that we can help reduce the suicide rate in Veterinary Medicine.
A few months ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Kevin Briggs, a retired member of the California Highway Patrol. Hailed “Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge,” Kevin has talked literally hundreds of people off the ledge of America’s most notorious suicide location. If, like many, you struggle to understand what goes through the minds of people who are suicidal, his invaluable perspective should enlighten you.
What goes through the mind of someone who’s contemplating suicide?
Kevin used this analogy: Imagine you’re on the 20th floor of a burning building. The flames behind you represent the problems, pain and challenges you currently have in your life. The open window before you represents a way out – suicide. For those who are in the deepest of despair, stepping through the open window is much easier to contemplate than stepping through the fire.
What should you do if someone you know seems suicidal?
First, find a discreet and comfortable place to talk. If you’re the individual’s supervisor, for example, your office could be intimidating and therefore not the best option.
Ask the individual if he or she is okay. If the answer is yes, don’t walk away. Stay curious, ask open-ended questions and continue the conversation. Some people fear that asking a vulnerable person how they’re feeling could prompt them to attempt suicide or increase the chances of that becoming a consideration. This isn’t true. Asking someone who hasn’t contemplated suicide if they’re feeling so inclined will not prompt them to become suicidal. And many studies show that personal connections are the key to leading a happy life. Your connection could make all the difference.
If the person acknowledges that he or she is struggling, be direct. It’s okay to ask “do you feel suicidal?” Based on the response, you may need to direct your friend or colleague towards help, for example, a suicide support group/hotline or your Employee Assistance Program (EAP).
Should you promise to keep conversations around suicide a secret?
You should certainly let the person know that you care and that you won’t share his or her “secret” with colleagues, friends or family. But you shouldn’t swear to secrecy. If the conversation leads you to believe there’s a serious suicide risk, you’ll want to alert someone without breaching the individual’s trust. I tend to approach the matter like this:
“I can’t promise to keep this private, but if I do feel the need to seek outside help, I will be sure to let you know by the end of this conversation. It will not be a surprise. I respect your privacy.
As I travel the country, I meet many veterinary professionals who confide their personal and professional challenges to me. After one speaking engagement, a veterinary technician shared with me that she was a suicide survivor. As we discussed her emotional journey, her tone of voice shifted from happy to fearful. When she began speaking about the decision to take her own life, I asked her, “What is the one thing that helped you through that; that pulled you out of that dark place?” In a notably more positive tone she said, “Someone said something to me. They asked me if I was okay. They cared. They listened. It just took one person.”
If you take anything away from this post, it’s this: When people are suicidal, they are hurt, they are struggling, and they need connection. It could just take one person who is genuine and listens to “talk them off the ledge”. It could just take you.
If you or a loved one needs support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can help. For 24/7, free and confidential support, call 1.800.273.8255, or visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ for valuable resources.
 2014 federal Centers for Disease Control online survey of 10,000 practicing veterinarians