- Animal welfare work is emotionally complex and stressful.
- There are no substantial data available on the suicide rates of animal welfare workers.
- It is vital that additional research be conducted.
Animal shelters are emotionally overloaded places. The workers there can face the extreme joy of reuniting a family and the extreme loss of euthanasia daily. On top of that, animal shelter workers are often confronted with suffering they are powerless to alleviate.
The emotional toll of this work can be overwhelming, potentially leading to depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. Yet despite the assumed elevated risk of suicide among animal shelter workers, there is a severe lack of data on the subject. The most quoted (and only identified) data point on the issue does not include most animal shelter workers.
What We Know
A widely quoted statistic from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has been used to suggest that animal rescue workers have an occupational suicide rate nearly five times higher than the average. This is an alarming number for sure!
However, this statistic cannot represent the reality of animal welfare. The number is drawn from the BLS’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI). The CFOI includes “animal control workers” as a part of the “Protective Services Occupations” class. This classification also includes firefighters, law enforcement, and private investigators. This classification does not contain animal caregivers and other positions that comprise most animal welfare workers. This data also only includes suicides on the job or at the workplace. Using this BLS data to prove elevated suicide rates in animal welfare should be done with extreme reservation.
In fact, if you dig deeper into the BLS data, you could almost be convinced there isn’t a problem at all. Based on CFOI data from 2011 to 2017, there were five workplace suicides total for the job classifications of animal caretakers and animal care and service workers. Between 2014 and 2020, there were three reported workplace suicides for animal control workers. While one suicide is too many, the deeper data don’t seem to agree with that often-cited generalized conclusion.
What We Don't Know
Does that mean there is no problem? Not at all. Current data suggest that animal welfare workers suffer from higher rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and secondary traumatic stress, all risk factors for suicide.
However, there have been no significant published studies on the suicide of animal welfare workers. This is even though suicide in allied occupations such as veterinary medicine and protective services has received significant academic and cultural attention.
A cursory review of academic databases demonstrates the utter lack of research regarding animal welfare work and suicide. Google Scholar lists hundreds of articles and studies related to veterinarian suicide and thousands concerning the suicide of police.
However, when searching for animal shelter worker suicide, zero studies focusing on the issue are identified. A few mental health studies are available, but none directly or comprehensively address suicide. Similar results are found in other academic databases. A review of popular literature yields the same results. On Google News, you can easily find dozens of articles about the veterinarian suicide crisis but no such coverage about animal shelter and welfare workers.
Why Don't We Know More?
The established elevated suicide risk for allied professions and the emerging research on the mental health challenges of animal welfare work strongly suggest that animal welfare workers are also at a higher risk of suicide. So why hasn’t more research been conducted?
One reason is that both veterinarians and most allied professions have strong national organizations focused solely on promoting their professions and the quality of life of their professionals. The American Veterinary Medical Association has made suicide prevention, education, and awareness a crucial part of its operation. It has promoted and encouraged research and provides extensive suicide awareness and prevention training. Its work, and the work of others, has significantly raised awareness of the veterinary suicide crisis. Animal welfare workers have no such advocacy program.
A second reason for the lack of research may be the lack of data. Animal welfare remains fragmented, with even primary core operational data being a struggle to collect and aggregate nationally. Research into this issue will be complicated and time-consuming, and without a strong push from funders and advocates, it is unlikely that researchers will be able to take on the challenge.
Suicide is likely a more significant part of the animal welfare world than currently understood, but maybe it is not. Either way, it must be known. Still, gathering the data cannot be the only priority.
What We Need
As the sector seeks to understand the suicide risk to shelter workers better, it must simultaneously work to reduce that risk. Mental health awareness for all care workers is growing, and managers need to implement best practices against burnout and compassion fatigue.
As more organizations employ social workers to assist the public better, they should utilize their expertise to assist staff who may be struggling. Organizations unable to hire social workers directly must build partnerships with social service agencies and guide staff and volunteers to where help can be obtained. National animal welfare and mental health organizations should provide clear, overt guidance on suicide and develop a national tracking database to gather data and bring awareness to the problem.
The immensity of the challenge of the work in animal welfare and the intense difficulty of discussing suicide have kept this issue from the attention it demands. The study of suicide risk in animal welfare workers and volunteers should be a priority. The limited data suggest an elevated suicide risk for animal welfare workers and volunteers. Targeted suicide education and awareness materials must be developed, and organizations should work together to build broad awareness. Other groups have had success on this front, and animal welfare cannot afford to fall behind.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, dial 988 for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Allison Andrukonis & Alexandra Protopopova (2020) Occupational Health of Animal Shelter Employees by Live Release Rate, Shelter Type, and Euthanasia-Related Decision, Anthrozoös, 33:1, 119–131, DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2020.1694316