I apologise if this is slightly depressing. I don’t want to add to the problem. I am keen to produce happy, upbeat stories about the domestic cat and wild cat species. However, I have to be realistic and present what I see before me in terms of news and informative articles.
At 5.3 cases per 1 million, people involved in animal rescue have the highest suicide rate amongst all American workers. It is the same rate as police officers and firefighters (American Journal of Preventive Medicine1). The average suicide rate for American workers is 1.5 per 1 million.
For animal rescue workers it’s about compassion fatigue. Dealing with an endless supply of tragic animal welfare stories and situations. The ever present pressure of having to euthanize healthy animals must take its toll. One animal rescue worker, Glenda Easterling, says that her husband tells her that she can’t save them all. Every day she tells herself that she can only save the ones that she can. It’s her way of limiting the emotional pressures.
The executive director of the Montgomery Humane Society, Stephen Tears, says, “We battle it all the time”. He is referring to compassion fatigue which is emotional exhaustion caused by the stress of caring for traumatized or suffering animals or people.
The Montgomery Humane Society specifically deal with compassion fatigue by appointing consultants to help them through it. Compassion fatigue is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. It is also known as “secondary-traumatic stress disorder” (STSD).
It can lead to depression and possible suicidal thoughts. Easterling refers to a dog that had to be euthanized. She was obviously attached to this dog because she says that she was a sweetie. The dog was at her shelter for a long time and contracted distemper and had to be euthanized.
Both Easterling and another animal rescue worker, Heather Hogan, agree that you have to focus on the positives and find a balance to your life. I suppose what they mean is there is a lot of difficulties in working in an animal shelter and you have to balance that with some positives and a more normal life outside of work.
I would like to make a point myself. The sort of people who work in animal rescue are going to be sensitive, decent and kind people. They are going to be the kind of people who care by which I mean genuinely care about the welfare of animals. They are ‘called’ to the work. It is a vocation. Therefore animal rescue workers can be particularly vulnerable to the potential unhappiness that the work can create. I also believe that life in general is tougher for people who care about animal welfare even if they are not working in animal rescue.
Tears says that workers in the animal rescue sector are not working for money. They are working to help save lives and it is therefore incredibly draining on emotions.
Another person in the animal rescue sector, Tonya Pitts, the animal care manager at the Montgomery Humane Society, echoes what her colleagues have stated. She says that you have to stay focused and you can only do your best. My interpretation is that she is saying is that you can’t allow yourself to be put under too much pressure to try and do the impossible because if you do you will simply hurt yourself psychologically.
Symptoms of a person suffering from passion fatigue include, isolation from others, poor self-care in respect of appearance and hygiene, difficulty concentrating, being preoccupied, being in denial about problems, excessive blaming and bottling up emotions.
Here’s some numbers:
- The statistics indicate that females suffer more than males. For example, 6.8% of males and 10.9% of females in the animal rescue sector suffer from serious psychological distress. This is in comparison to 3.5% and 4.4% of American male and female adults generally. Note: 86% of people in animal welfare-related professions are women with an average age of 35. On average they work 5.5 years in the profession (psychologytoday.com).
- Within the veterinary profession, 24.5% of men and 36.7% of women have experienced periods of depression since leaving veterinary school. This is about 1.5 times the average rate amongst US adults.
- Amongst veterinarians, considering suicide is three times the US national mean.
- Attempted suicide amongst those working in the veterinary sector are at 1.1% for men and 1.4% for women.
The statistics are the result of an anonymous online survey from the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, Oberon University and the CDC. Source: The Montgomery Advertiser.
Burn out amongst animal rescue workers is discussed in an article I have just written:
Source: Montgomery Advertiser.
1. I have visited this organisation’s website and failed to find the study on that site probably due to a poor search engine.