Veterinarian’s suicide prompts class on compassion fatigue

By Sarah Carey

UF veterinary students hold pencils in their mouths as part of an exercise during a compassion fatigue presentation, held as part of the End of Life course on Oct. 15.

UF veterinary students hold pencils in their mouths as part of an exercise during a compassion fatigue presentation, held as part of the End of Life course on Oct. 14. The point was to illustrate the difference between forced and natural smiles and the discomfort that ensues over time when professionals mask their true feelings. (Photo by Sarah Carey)

Although many studies have shown that veterinarians have the highest suicide rate of all veterinary professions, when renowned behaviorist and veterinarian Sophia Yin died by her own hand Sept. 28 at the age of 48, many in the veterinary profession were shocked and saddened. Dr. Brian DiGangi, a clinical assistant professor of shelter medicine at UF, was among those deeply affected.

“I felt like I needed to do something,” he said.

So on Oct. 14, within the End of Life Issues course he coordinates, DiGangi built in a two-hour discussion on the topic of compassion fatigue. Students were given several options for how to approach the topic, and were required to complete a three-question “service and balance sheet” in which they had to record the self-care activities they engage in, how they separate their work and home lives and what they do to improve their lives away from work.

DiGangi introduced the topic, presenting definitions and distinctions between terms such as compassion, stress, secondary traumatic stress and burnout. He showed examples of the effect of compassion fatigue on professionals, including a disturbing video of a shelter medicine professional performing euthanasia on a cat.

“This person wasn’t a bad person, but they were clearly over the top with frustration,” DiGangi said.

Students Thomas Seberry and Andrea Daniel chose to look at three veterinary professionals – including Yin – whose lives ended by suicide. Although Yin’s case was more nebulous, the students pointed out that family members of Yin’s had indicated that she was struggling with feeling overwhelmed at work and possibly depressed at the time of her death. Two other veterinarians presented as case studies – Dr. Edith Klein of Pelham, Ga., and Dr. Shirley Koshi of New York City — had more outwardly recognizable stresses in their lives, including the introduction of a nearby competitor in Klein’s case and cyberbullying in Koshi’s.

“These are just some unfortunate examples of veterinarians around the world who have passed away due to compassion fatigue,” Seberry said. “Most of us know somebody in the veterinary world who may have at least struggled with compassion fatigue at some point. It is up to us to recognize this as a problem among our profession and work to change things for the better.”

As spokesperson for another group presentation on the importance of self care, Andrew Torchia started by asking his classmates to raise their hands if they had a pencil. Then he asked them to place a pencil between their teeth and smile while continuing to hold it…and hold it. The point was that holding a forced position or masking one’s true feelings over time can have a profound negative effect.

This group listed characteristics of self care, including “for you, by you,” identifying your own needs and taking steps to meet them, taking time to do some of the activities that nurture you, taking proper care of your social, mental, physical and spiritual self, and finding your balance.

Cultivating a strong social network and an attitude of gratitude were discussed as having a strong correlation with positivity, as were taking care of one’s mental health in specific ways such as knowing when to say no, reflecting in a daily journal, talking to someone who can empathize with one’s situation and learning to laugh more. Paying attention to physical needs, such as exercise, sleep and nutrition were also noted, as well as things not to do – over-medicate with alcohol, caffeine or drugs, particularly when already feeling emotionally drained.

“Despite your best efforts at self care, you still may experience compassion fatigue,” said Torchia. “Don’t be afraid to seek help.”

Another group of student presenters spoke of taking the MBTI and Jung typology test, and discussed some of the personality types people fall into using this methodology.

“It’s safe to say that pretty much in every personality type, you can find something that will predispose you to compassion fatigue,” said group representative Dana Connell.

Referencing various texts in their class reading list, this group talked about both internal and external factors that can contribute to compassion fatigue and shared some examples of how to check in with someone who appears to be going through a difficult time.

They also shared various resources available as support for students experiencing stress, burnout, or overall compassion fatigue both on and off campus. These included self assessment tests and mental health counselors, as well as books and webinars.

“Lastly, we did find this resource – ‘The Caregiver’s Bill of Rights’,” said group spokesperson Hunter Schrank. “It basically tells you that you have the right to feel these things. It’s OK to have these feelings sometimes.”

• Dr. Barbara Welsch, a veterinarian and a licensed psychologist with UF’s Student Health Care Center, is available to students for one on one counseling sessions. Dr. Welsch prefers to be contacted via email to arrange appointments, but requests that follow-up be made by phone at 352-392-1575 if a reply is not received within a day or two.

• Dr. Ron Del Moro is a mental health counselor who works for the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and is available for students, faculty and staff. He is available Monday through Friday and can be reached via email at or his cell phone at 352-283-0028 for any questions, concerns and/or to set up a time to meet.

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November 2014

Veterinarian’s suicide prompts class on compassion fatigue

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