A farewell to Dr. Sophia Yin

A farewell to Dr. Sophia Yin

Reeling from the loss, friends and colleagues work to further her legacy in wake of suicide.
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Nov 01, 2014

In her final days, animal behavior pioneer Sophia Yin, DVM, struggled with how to keep her vision alive while balancing the demands of business. She confided her concerns and frustrations to close friends and colleagues, yet none of them could have predicted the events of Sept. 28.

Veterinary business consultant Betsy Choder, JD, worked with Yin over the last few years on generic employment-related issues. Then Yin asked Choder to come to California to help her handle some recent business concerns and spend time with a troubled friend.

“She knew she was overwhelmed,” says Choder. “The biggest concern of hers during the week we spent together—which in hindsight were the last few days prior to her death—was making sure she didn’t stray from her original vision while trying to address the internal management of her business.”

Yin had recently returned from a summer European tour and was inspired by training methods she had seen there. She helped guide her staff on improvements to marketing and seminar presentations and was concentrating on her soon-to-be-released training video, From Fearful and Reactive to Happy and Calm. Yet at the same time Yin worried about her abilities to manage the business. In addition to seeking Choder’s expertise and assistance, she sought medical help and advice from other close friends to deal with her concerns.

Choder had to return to Georgia briefly but had plans to return later the following week. However, when Yin didn’t return a voicemail and text message on Sunday afternoon, Choder immediately contacted an intern in Davis to check on Yin at her home.

Yin was found dead in her home by that intern on Sept. 28. Yolo County Chief Deputy Coroner Gina Moya says Yin’s cause of death is listed as asphyxia by hanging and has been ruled as a suicide. No additional details will be released until the case is closed.

For Choder and thousands of others, the loss has been shocking.

“I never realized her own insecurities and feelings,” says Yin’s longtime mentor Jim Wilson, DVM, JD. “She was enthusiastic and upbeat, and underlying that wasn’t the curtain of depression and the inability to do anything. Those often are the cases where friends and colleagues miss the cues that might help us figure out how to help.”

A behavior pioneer

Yin was a 1993 graduate of the University of California-Davis, where she earned her DVM. She later returned to UC-Davis, and in 2001 she earned her master’s degree in animal science with an emphasis in animal behavior. She went on to publish her work in a number of journals, as well as three books: Perfect Puppy in 7 Days, How to Behave So Your Dog Behaves and Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification of Cats and Dogs. She also produced a number of training videos, worked in private practice, was widely recognized as a pet-training expert and was a leader in groups such as the Animal Humane Association and the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior.

Wilson met Yin at the UC-Davis in 1992 when she was a third-year veterinary student. One night after his business management course, Yin approached Wilson with the idea of self-publishing her book The Small Animal Veterinary Nerdbook, a pocket reference on everything small animal that’s now in its third edition. It remains much-beloved by students and veterinary practitioners alike. 

Wilson began to mentor Yin, encouraging her to forge her own path in animal behavior beyond the board-certified route. And that’s exactly what she did. “She would take the complex task of evaluating behavior, break it into its pieces and then with photos and videos teach people how to proceed with behavior modification,” Wilson says.

Choder says Yin became “visibly energized and delightfully animated” when focused on improving the relationship between people and their pets. “Her brilliant smile combined with her passion for wanting to help improve human-animal bonds through stress-free animal handling and training were equally infectious,” she says. “People who were around her instantly wanted to be a part of her world.”

But the work didn’t come easy, says Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, an ABS-certified applied animal behaviorist and close colleague of Yin’s. “She worked exceedingly hard at her gift,” Overall says. “She had the practical, hands-on ability to get trainers and clients and veterinarians all to do better—and to realize that better was better for them and it was better for their patients.

“She went and taught herself anything she needed to know. There was no training program for what Sophia did,” Overall continues. “She chose to focus on the weakest link—animals who are fearful in veterinary settings.”

An intense work life

Never breaking away from the stresses of the profession can take its toll. Yin struggled with developing personal relationships outside of her career, Wilson says, and wasn’t able to achieve the balance that is so crucial in such an emotionally draining field.

“Too many veterinarians have no personal interests. They volunteer at the animal shelter. They work. Some have no way of getting away from the intense pressure of animal care,” Wilson says. “You’ve got to get outside of the profession and find a way to let your brain slow down, quiet down, be distracted.”

But Overall says the behavior field in particular is a difficult one to take time off from. “When quality of life is at stake, when it pains you to see dogs pulled up on a leash, to get hundreds of calls and emails a day asking for help—it’s exceedingly difficult to take time off,” she says. “When we burn so brightly and we’re so passionate, everyone feels we’re accessible to them. It’s exhausting.”

And Yin was a perfectionist, those close to her say—she struggled with feelings of inadequacy. “Her struggle always was that she didn’t believe in how great she really was,” Wilson says. “It was perception versus reality." 

Marty Becker, DVM, pioneer of the Fear Free low-stress veterinary movement, says he spent a lot of time talking with Yin during the last few months—about everything: “life, relationships, careers, disappointments, rejections, strategy and God.”

Although Becker says Yin shared concerns about her financial and personal struggles, he says her business was doing well and many of the problems were rooted in her own perceptions. “Her business was not in trouble,” he says. “I wish every business that was in trouble looked like hers.”

He recalls a conversation not long ago when Yin had mentioned suicide, but it only came up once. “I never thought it was serious,” he says. “She felt like her whole life, her whole success was wrapped up in her business. She felt like it was never good enough. The quality of the videos wasn’t good enough, the acceptance of her Stress Less Handling protocols by the profession wasn’t fast enough.”

Yin also confided to Becker that although she ran for exercise, it was also to try to escape the pressures she was feeling. But she told him that no matter how far or fast she ran, she could never outrun the sadness. The gravity of these words and their meaning are only now obvious to Becker.

“She wanted to do good,” he says. And with more than a thousand grief-stricken comments about Dr. Yin's passing that have been posted to her Facebook page, it’s evident she made a huge impact.

“Sophia, you did good,” Becker says.

A stressful profession

For Yin, like many veterinarians, the stresses of the profession can be difficult to navigate. A special report on burnout and job satisfaction in the veterinary field published in a recent issue of the Journal of Veterinary Medicine Education reveals that two-thirds of veterinarians have suffered from clinical depression. According to the report, veterinarians are four times more likely than the average person to commit suicide and twice as likely as other healthcare professionals.

“I thought about it a lot, but I just didn’t do it,” says Steve Noonan, DVM, CPCC. “I have no idea what it takes to go from that thought process to poor Dr. Yin, but I don’t think it’s very far.”

Noonan knows firsthand the burdens of veterinary practice. After founding and running numerous veterinary hospitals in Canada, Noonan burned out. He is now a practicing again, as well as working as a full-time management consultant and coach, and he lectures on the science of happiness and positive psychology, including mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques.

“It’s a very demanding profession because we’re expected to be all things to all people,” Noonan says. “We veterinarians are used to being the best at everything. We’re highly competitive. Almost everybody in veterinary school was probably the top of their class in undergraduate school, and all of a sudden you get thrust into a world where you’re average.”

Add in the fact that many veterinarians are naturally introverts, have huge amounts of debt and are burdened with running businesses when they would rather focus on clinical skills, and veterinarians seem doomed to depression and failure. Noonan says veterinarians also are prone to post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterinarians see 10 times the deaths that human physicians do, Noonan says; they experience loud noises, bloodshed and dangerous patients, and they’re tasked with the difficult job of performing euthanasia—both for physical and financial reasons.

Veterinarians would benefit from more training on how to run their businesses and handle the stresses of practice in veterinary school, Noonan says, and Yin’s colleagues hope her death will open doors to make things better for other veterinarians.

“She had this palatable energy that emanated off of her,” Becker says. “She spent her entire career looking inside the minds of companion animals and yet that’s what dogged her. I think the very thing she was fighting against was hopelessness in dogs. I’m sure she understood hopelessness, not unlike she was trying to teach about in pets. But she succumbed to it.”

“What we need to do is to celebrate our grief by ensuring that we don’t let the progress Sophia made slip backward,” Overall says. “We must redouble our efforts and go out and educate people so that the world becomes a better and more humane climate for animals.”

Choder says that shortly before Yin’s death, she expressed feeling overwhelmed by her work, her passion. It was also evident that she felt pulled in many different directions. She worried that her vision—the most important thing to her—was slipping away.

“Sophia’s vision was to educate and provide veterinarians, trainers, animal behaviorists and pet owners with a variety of low-stress behavior-modification methods through science-based training for handling and treating animals which, inevitably, would produce an improved relationship between humans and animals,” Choder recalls. “Her vision included the desire of showing, enabling and helping pet owners, animal handlers and veterinarians ways to have a better understanding of, and relationship with, animals. She was able to change a lot of people’s lives and their viewpoints on their pets’ behavioral traits.

“I am grateful to have had Sophia’s trust and friendship,” Choder continues. “I shall always feel blessed to have known such an amazing, intelligent, talented, professional, successful and internationally revered veterinarian and animal behaviorist whose vision will endure through the lives of so many she touched—and through the products she gave to the world.” 

Rachael Zimlich is a freelance writer who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. She formerly worked for dvm360 magazine.