Treating a grieving pet owner with quiet compassion, understanding, and care is something every vet is familiar with, but it’s important to acknowledge that for some, that grief may feel suffocating and all-consuming, and may lead to the potential for suicide. At the end of a pet’s life, or at the point of euthanasia, it is possible that a client may say to you “there is no point going on without my pet” or “I want to end my life.” This can be quite confronting as a vet or vet nurse, so we have put together a few key things to keep in mind should this ever occur.
- Duty of care. If a client mentions taking their own life or sounds suicidal, you can say: “I have a duty of care to report this and take action, and this overrides confidentiality.”
- Take it seriously. Any suggestion of suicide should always be taken very seriously. Even if put forward in a joking manner, it can be a cry for help.
- Talk to them. Take them to a safe, private space in the practice, away from other clients and staff. Establish that you are concerned about their emotional state and want to help.
- Ask directly. It can be hard, but asking directly if someone is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts is the best way to understand what they need in the moment, and how to find the best support for them. There will often be a sense of relief that someone is prepared to connect with them on what can be a very taboo subject.
- Listen. Often people feel like they are alone and have no options. Encourage them to talk, be a supportive presence, and listen non-judgmentally.
- Get help. Offer to help them make the first call, either to a professional suicide hotline, or to a partner, friend, or family member who can do this with them. Consider having toolkit resources from suicide prevention services on hand in the practice (see below for a few suggested resources.)
- Do not leave them alone. If someone has indicated a serious suicidal desire or intention, do not leave them without a support person. Take action to get them immediate professional care.
Knowing how to handle the situation when a client mentions suicide or is in serious distress can not only help them find the right support, but may save their life. Many organisations in Australia and internationally offer advice on how to best help someone considering suicide, and we have listed their websites and hotlines below. (If someone’s life is in immediate danger, please call 000.)
“It is a true compliment that someone trusted you at their most vulnerable and that you navigated him to safety. You didn’t interfere in his choice. When people are suicidal, they are wanting to end the pain. Sometimes it’s a pain of not being understood or heard. We have to show them there’s another way. They aren’t necessarily wanting to choose death but choosing to end the pain. Sometimes that’s helping them through their despair until they can get access to professional help and support,” said veterinarian Dr Alex Harrison.
Helping someone with suicidal thoughts is likely to have a big impact on you, so it is important to debrief. “Lots of people say ‘call me if you want to talk’ but very few can really step up when someone is at their darkest. It’s very hard, raw and confronting. I know from experience that you need to debrief and look after yourself in the aftermath. These things can affect us down the track,” explained Dr Alex Harrison.
The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) also offer a free 24-hour phone service with qualified counsellors who can talk through issues and provide advice. The service can also arrange a counsellor to attend veterinary workplaces to help support staff after a traumatic incident. The service is available to AVA members, the vet professionals that work for them (who may not be members) and family members. Call 1300 687 327 or visit the AVA’s website for more information.
If someone’s life is in immediate danger, please call 000.
- Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
- Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636
- Samaritans (based in WA) – 135 247
- SuicideLine (based VIC) – 1300 651 251
- Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467