This is not about Sophia Yin.
I feel the need to say that before launching into a discussion about suicide and depression in the animal community, because the horrible news that she took her own life and the ripples it is causing in the veterinary world is the reason I’m talking about it today. But it’s not about her or her situation, which none of us will ever really know; Dr. Yin’s legacy is the work she did during her life, and it should remain that way. This is not about one person.
Whenever a tragedy like this happens, I see the same posts over and over: “Shocking. Tragic. Hold your loved ones close and tell them you love them. If someone seems to be suffering ask if they are OK.” And so it goes for a day or two, as we hug our kids and our spouse and our dog and then go back to work and assiduously ignore the suffering of those around us. Not that we recognize it most of the time anyway, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
One of the biggest misconceptions people seem to have about stress, burnout, and depression is that it is inevitably obvious to those around the person. I blame Zoloft ads for making us think all depressed people walk around weeping with little clouds hanging over them.
I think a lot of depressed people look like this:
You know how we always say cats walk around looking like a million bucks with BUN levels through the roof until one day, way past the point it was an issue, it’s finally too much but you never had a clue? A lot of depressed people look like that. So maybe this is a little more accurate:
They do just fine at work, and out amongst friends, and then come home and realize man I am not fine. But we’ve normalized stress in our lives to the point many of us don’t even necessarily recognize the signs of depression in others, and even in ourselves. I sat on the floor of the bathroom for four hours straight one day, when I was suffering from postpartum depression, and still had no idea that sitting on the floor of the bathroom unable to muster the energy to move two feet might be a sign something was wrong (protip: it is).
I don’t like talking about that time in my life, but I will because every time we censor ourselves from discussing these things we perpetuate the stigma that drives people away from seeking treatment. We are more scared of the consequences of admitting depression than we are the consequences of not being treated, and oh my god, how awful is that? I’m pretty sure the mental health professional community has been watching us in horror for years, waiting for us as a profession to finally say yeah, we could probably use some assists here.
So while asking someone if they are ok and offering virtual hugs is lovely and kind, I really think the time has come to try and do something a little more impactful. Open dialogue is a good place to start. So let me share some things that I have discovered over time, watching us wring our hands in despair over and over while we wonder what we could have done differently:
1. You would not believe how many other people out there are going through the same thing.
People at the top of their field, with lovely families and good jobs and beautiful dogs. People who seem to have it all together. And maybe they do, if they have good treatment.
2. I wish someone had told me about these things in vet school.
I thought I was the only person plagued by worry and self-doubt in school. In retrospect, ha! That was really not the case. Nonetheless, a little peer-to-peer support or support from people already out there would have been very reassuring. I believe we need to start letting people know at the start of their career, not at the middle or end, that stress/anxiety/depression/burnout are common, but solvable problems.
3. There’s support, although it’s hard to find.
Do you know what the hardest part was for me about getting through my depression? Figuring out who to call. My OB didn’t help, the psychiatrists she gave me the numbers for didn’t take on new cases, I wasn’t actively suicidal, and by the fourth call I was too tired to deal with it any more. So I laid on the bathroom floor for a few more days until I had the lightbulb idea to call my primary care physician, who was horrified and got me in that afternoon and life got a lot better after that.
I feel like our profession is still in the same place. Help should be very visible and easy to access, a rope already floating in the water instead of a life preserver someone has to yell for when they are drowning. Want to really do something to make our profession better? Help me figure out how to make that happen.
So you think you’re depressed/ burned out/ feeling off? Take a deep breath, you are in good company. You do not stop being a successful professional and accomplished person. Life can be good and you can still rock out and kick ass and laugh till your cheeks hurt. Here’s some places to start:
1. There is active peer support, through VIN, and on Facebook. A closed group has been started on Facebook for people dealing with these issues as well as their family and friends- to request membership, click here. Peer support is fundamental, though of course it is not a substitute for-
2. Calling your primary care physician, who if they cannot handle it themselves can at least get you where you need to go. I guarantee you every mental health professional out there is going “uh, of course,” at every thing I have said because they are experienced in these things, while we are not.
3. Stop googling. Seriously, all you will do is come out blaming yourself for not juicing enough and while it is a lovely way to get vitamins, it’s probably not going to be enough. Talk to a pro, just like we tell people to stop treating their dog’s ear infections with diluted alcohol that they read about on a yahoo group and go to the vet. Right?
4. VetGirl has offered their excellent webinar about suicide awareness available for free, for everyone. It is well worth the watch not for anyone who works in the field to help increase your understanding of the issue. You can find it here.
5. VIN is offering a webinar this Sunday at 9 pm PST to honor Dr. Yin and discuss “Dealing With You and Your Colleagues’ Stress and Depression.” My understanding is that this webinar will be made available to non-VIN members as well, so stay tuned as I get more information. Both webinars, by the way, are taught by mental health professionals who know their stuff.
I will be honest and admit I hate overly sentimental statements accompanied by soft-focus ocean pictures like “fall into my arms and I will catch you” and “the world is full of hugs if you just ask for them” and all that other stuff, so I will offer you my own personal unfiltered thoughts on this:
Depression sucks, and it’s real, a physiological crap storm of neurotransmitters, and if you are reading this experiencing a dawning sense of dread with unasked-for tears rolling down your face as you desperately say nonononononono I’m fine, you might not be. So call someone who can help so you can stop feeling miserable, ok? Do it today.
OK maybe one overly sentimental picture. But just one, and only because kittens. And with that, I demand some good news so we can get back to our regularly scheduled program of fur removal device discussions and derpy dog pics.