Advice From the Trenches

Advice From The Trenches: Death by burnout

Dear C and Dr. B:

My amazing veterinarian of 10 years committed suicide. He was the nicest guy and married with two small children. I just don’t get it.  

When I hear of a suicide, it usually seems obvious why the person did it – they were living with a situation that felt hopeless or fatal – but I can’t understand why my vet did it. He seemed like a very together guy, he was so good with the animals… and then I hear that he is gone.

I know he mentioned feeling workplace burnout, but to KILL himself? I am trying to make sense of it, but I just can’t. How can anyone know when a friend, colleague, or family member is in the danger zone? If my vet could do it, we are all in trouble.

 Dr. B says:

I’m so sorry. Suicide negatively affects everyone whom the person touched. No one can tell what another person’s story is – we can’t read each other’s minds. But there are certain trends.

The symptoms of burnout are endemic these days. Chronic fatigue, misplaced anger, and a sense of meaninglessness can lead to anyone seeing themself as a failure. But suicide is another step beyond burnout. 

I believe that feeling trapped is the route to both suicide and burnout. People are caught between their personal expectations and our very real external limitations. The pressures that administrators, parents, boards, clients and customers put on us are killing free will. Others tell us how, when, and where, leaving no room for creativity, joy, or a sense of accomplishment. 

It is a shock when the innocent enthusiasm of youth meets the reality of a system that resists personal expression and a search for meaning – or, worse, punishes you for trying. Healthcare workers are very susceptible to this in our litigious culture. Suicide comes when a person internalizes these conflicts and self-blames: “It’s me, not the impossible system – I am a failure.”

We may be taught that there is a single Truth, but when we try to live by it we are destined to fail. Every individual has their own truth. There is no one single Truth. Human reality is imperfect, all human systems are imperfect, and any human endeavor becomes absurd when examined closely.  

No one owns your soul but you. You can pick and choose what is important and meaningful to you and chuck the rest. This is exactly what therapy is intended for. Unfortunately, supportive therapy, which boils down to passive listening, has become favored by insurance companies because it is cheap and short-term. But this is just enabling and doesn’t lead to understanding or change.  

Everyone has to create meaning in their own life. We can’t base our lives on pleasing or satisfying other people’s expectations. We need to allow ourselves to do what we can without expecting perfection or even completion. 

We shouldn’t blame ourselves for the craziness we didn’t create. It’s better to focus on the things that bring joy to our life. That’s what makes life worth living.

C says:

Some suicides come as no surprise. But a lot of them throw everyone for a loop because no one even knew those who died were unhappy. I think that those who proclaim their unhappiness the loudest are seldom the ones who do themselves in. The most desperate people leave far fewer clues because they are not capable of reaching out when they need help. In this country, we do not encourage men to need or to cry. Maybe we should.

• In the US, the rate of suicide is highest in middle-aged white men

• In 2020, men had a suicide rate 3.8 times higher than women

• 52.8% of those deaths are by firearm

No disrespect to 2nd Amendment advocates, but that’s a lot of the gun-toting middle-aged white men who might have been better off without guns.

The world is in shock when celebrities kill themselves – Robin Williams; Anthony Bourdain, a larger-than-life globe-trotting chef and cynic; Kate Spade, a wildly successful designer; Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway… it is a long list. They seemed to have it all – talent, fame, and adoring fans. But we forget that they also had publicists, whose sole job was to maintain the image of those very profitable cash cows.

Every sentient being on Earth is suffering. We forget that, absorbed as we are in our own lives and personal dramas, but the way that we treat each other can be more important than we realize. We are more than the sum of our texts and emojis. If you cut us, we bleed. Our feelings matter.

Wise words from the Dalai Lama: “Be kind whenever it is possible. It is always possible.”

– Cathren Housley 

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