Thursday, February 19, 2015

Interview with Brian Mc Erlean on suicide prevention in veterinarians

suicide prevention veterinarians
Brian and an equine companion.
Suicide is a major problem for the veterinary profession. I’ve always taken it seriously, but last year six people I know died by their own hand. Some were vets, one was a dedicated nurse/wildlife carer. Some I knew well, others were acquaintances. It was absolutely shocking and really knocked me sideways. It knocked everyone around them sideways. The loss, the lack of explanation, the what-if-I-had-seen-this-coming, the endless mental re-enactments of final desperate moments. I’d always listened, but suddenly I understood on a new level why people like Dr Brian McErlean campaign tirelessly for suicide prevention.

Brian was born in Ireland, “in great antiquity”, he says, and competed a veterinary degree at Trinity College Dublin. He then spent 33 years in mostly mixed practice and was a director of Westralian Drug wholesale company until they were taken over by Provet. Brian is currently a Trustee of the AVA Benevolent Fund and a Veterinary Surgeon’s Board inspector in WA.

You are a former veterinarian dedicated to suicide prevention. Can you tell us a bit about your career as a vet?

My father was a veterinarian but had left practice to be a university lecturer by the time I was born. I started practising in Ireland in 1978 as a cattle veterinarian and then went to mixed practice. In 1981 I settled in Perth and built a large 13 vet practice with the help of 6 partners. Four years ago I retired from it at 56 years of age. My interests were extremely varied over the years from practice management to equine stud work to piggery consultancy to small animal practice and lots in between.

We hear about stress and vets a lot. Why is being a vet so stressful?

It depends on the individual and what stresses them. I remember asking the veterinarians I worked with what stressed them and they all said something different. For me it would be working on my own as I am not very technical.
Most veterinarians are stressed by long working hours, work pressure, difficult clients, management issues and performing euthanasia.

We know the stats about suicide – a veterinarian is four times more likely to take his or her life than just about anyone else. Why is this?

In the US if there is a gun in the house it increases the suicide risk at least 3 times. Our gun in the house is the lethal drugs we are surrounded by. Add to this untreated depression and other mentation issues such as isolation and feelings of worthlessness and you have the picture.

We talk about suicide prevention, but many vets would not identify themselves as being suicidal. What can we do to reduce the risk of stress escalating to the point of suicidal ideation?

Chronic unrelieved stress can commonly contribute to depression. Untreated severe depression puts an individual at high risk of self harm. 

Not all veterinarians that suicide are depressed and not all those with severe depression are suicidal so the picture is not simple. In the general population 90% of those that take their lives have a diagnosable mental condition.

You have to determine your own stressors and deal with them. Shortening working hours, increasing pay and getting a work/life balance should help. Avoid relationship breakdown if you can. Males that divorce are high risk especially if children are involved.

Do you live with any non-human animals? Can you tell us a bit about them?

When the boys grew up and left home we did not replace our dog so we could travel. We do have two alpacas in the back paddock.

What are three things each of us can do to improve the wellbeing of ourselves and those around us?

  1. Exercise vigorously 2-3 times a week.
  2. Get Omega 3 fatty acids in your diet (flaxseed or fish) as your body does not make them and they are great for brain nutrition.
  3. Stay connected to the “tribe” [For example, one could join the Australian Veterinary Orchestra- ed] and do community or voluntary work.
I personally believe that much that ails western society relates to loss of tribe. The horse belongs in a herd, the dog in a pack and the human in a tribe. Cats developed as solitary desert creatures and most of us are not cats.

What kind of resources are needed to continue the successful programs you’ve been running?

We need steady funding to keep the suicide prevention message going in perpetuity. It is okay to talk about suicide but not about the means. As long as veterinarians are surrounded by lethal substances and have mentation issues such as depression we have to keep pushing them to help through education.

Thank you Brian. Support is available to anyone who might be distressed by phoning Lifelife 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36.