Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mentionitis: Symptoms, Treatment, and Prevention

I had this interesting email exchange with a trainer a couple of weeks ago.  She told me she felt she had a case of "Mentionitis."  I instantly fell in love with that term and asked her if I could use it in one of my blogs.

So what is Mentionitis?  


I did a little research on it and found that WebMD does not consider it an actual illness.  So I've taken the liberty of creating a page for it and hope all the goodly folks at WebMD feel free to use it whenever they feel ready.

Topic Overview

It's a disease!

Mentionitis' etiology usually starts in more benign territory.  We as animal care professionals love our animals, love our job, and want to be the best at it.  We also want to hear what other people in the field are doing, because most of us have an insatiable drive to better ourselves.  We worked tooth-and-nail to break into the field, too.  We have learned how to make ourselves stand apart from a crowd.  In fact, this last point is the likeliest vector for this particular ailment.

Mentionitis can happen to zookeepers at any level (intern to whatever-the-highest-position-in-your-facility-is) but is more frequently seen in less-experienced animal care professionals.

Common Causes


* Often, the desire to prove oneself to a new employer combined with the already-mentioned inherent internal drive to prove one's worthiness in the field is the main cause. 

* Lack of personal confidence

* Being in a position of leadership, especially at a new facility


Oh no, kitty! Don't get Mentionitis!!!

* Five or more times per week, many sentences preceded with, "At such-and-such facility, we used to..." or some variation of said phrase.  This symptom is difficult to detect initially; it is often suddenly obvious in later stages of the illness.

* A sudden inability to listen to what's being said by other parties, followed quickly by an uncontrollable urge to speak

* Patients may experience inner feelings of criticism or judgment, but this is not a necessary symptom for diagnosis

* May have a tone of superiority

What Happens

Perception is reality.  Also, where can I find such a perfectly crafted tiny kitty mirror?

People suffering from Mentionitis often find themselves talking about previous experiences in situations where their current experience differs from their old one(s).  They often "mention" what they used to do or observed at another facility at a consistently high rate for longer than a few weeks. This is likely a reaction to a feeling of under confidence on a topic or situation that used to feel comfortable to them, but no longer does due to unfamiliar people, animals, and methods.  

In many cases, Mentionitis is a defense mechanism in which the victim feels he or she "looks stupid" because they mistake being new at something for being ill-equipped for the job.  The more the patient feels this way, the more acute Mentionitis tends to be.

This ailment can also present itself in power-play.  While the underlying cause (lack of confidence) remains the same, it is not necessarily always used as defense in these cases.  Previous experience may be used more as a lording-over, versus thoughtful data input.  

In all cases, discussing previous experiences is only Mentionitis if it occurs:

1) More than five times a week for several weeks or months
2) There is little to no active listening occurring
3) There is a general tone of superiority

In almost all cases of Mentionitis, the victim experiences the opposite of the desired effect.  Where they sought to prove themselves as worthy animal care professionals, they are now viewed as know-it-alls.  

A long-term case of Mentionitis decreases trust and gives the appearance that you don't really want to be at your current zoo or aquarium.  It gives the impression that you are constantly criticizing the decisions made by your new team members.  This is often not the intention of the victims of this disease, but is the unfortunate and undebatable perception.  This causes understandable frustration with both parties. 

What Increases Your Risk

If you're a human, you're going to get Mentionitis at least once in your life

* Being human

* Being new to the field (less than three years of experience)

* Working (including interning) at a new facility 

* Being a leader in a new facility or with a new team

* Working in a highly competitive environment where one is afraid to fail

When To Seek Help

It is best to seek treatment at the first sign of Mentionitis.  

Treatment Overview


If you feel you have Mentionitis, meet with a mentor or trusted coworker.  Diagnosing and treating this illness requires you to: be open to criticism, be comfortable with not knowing something, and develop good listening skills.  Treatment can only begin when you are ready to hear that you have Mentionitis.  Be honest about your own intentions, and be willing to follow a course of treatment as outlined by your mentor or boss.

Especially if you are new to the field (less than three years of experience), remind yourself that it's okay to be new at something.  It's okay that you had a fantastic handle on how your previous facility did things, or that you had a lot of responsibility and now at this new place have less.  

Hey thanks!

Realizing that you prove your awesome-ness by learning how things are done at your new facility without succumbing to feelings of insecurity or frustration is the best treatment for this disease.  This is especially true for leaders just starting out at a new facility.  At all levels, showing that you are learning a new way of doing things without obviously comparing it to previous experiences builds trust in your new team members.  They see you undoubtedly dedicating yourself to the team. 

In practice, treatment often requires the patient to force themselves to completely stop mentioning their other experiences for a certain period of time.  This acts as a show of good faith; to prove they were not actually criticizing, but were trying to show their good qualities.  This treatment course not only gains the trust of other coworkers, but allows the patient to learn more open-mindedly, as it is medically impossible to to be open-minded while talking about how other places do things.


A donut a day keeps Mentionitis at bay.  Or gives you diabetes.  I can't remember.

It is very common to have a desire to share a story or idea from previous experience.  In general, good prevention requires new employees (from intern to manager) to spend a period of several weeks or months listening, watching, and learning as open-mindedly as possible.  Internal comparisons are not considered Mentionitis. 

Waiting to mention previous experiences when asked, or if it is socially relevant (e.g. a funny or interesting story) is perfectly acceptable at appropriate intervals.

If one has a question about one's performance, or the perception of oneself, it is best to approach a mentor, peer, or boss for feedback first.  

Clear, consistent coaching based in positive reinforcement from mentors can often prevent Mentionitis.

A Note To Those Who Deal With Patients

I take all my advice from Pixar

Most of us have suffered from Mentionitis.  It is an illness that can be cured, but can also return.  There is no immunity, only prevention and treatment at the earliest possible detection.  Recovering victims are often the best course of treatment for those who are currently suffering from this prevalent ailment.  

Remember, Mentionitis often comes from very good intentions.  If you are experiencing a coworker who constantly talks about "Well at my old aquarium...", you can pull that person aside and have an honest, not-scary discussion with them about how they are perceived when they bring up their previous experience.  Unless this is a recurring problem, it is generally advisable to be clear but compassionate in your feedback.  

Final Thoughts

The master of the final thought

The danger in treating Mentionitis is that sometimes, we try to prevent any mention of previous experiences.  This is the opposite disease called Stuck-upitis, in which we feel our own facility has all the answers and we don't need or want outside input.   It's about balance: we always need fresh ideas, but we also need to feel comfortable learning new ways of doing things, even if we think we should give the appearance of knowing "more".   

Sharing experiences is fun! Especially since we've got the IMATA conference starting today, we've got a perfect forum to swap stories and ideas as long as we make sure we're listening to others and not coming off as judgmental.  New ideas should be shared, but some ways of sharing are better than others.

Don't despair if you are in the throes of this common illness. I've suffered from it a few times and have had successful treatment in all cases.  I've assisted in the treatment of others, as well.  You will be just fine, as long as you follow the treatment plan outlined for you.  And remember to do the same for someone else!


  1. Awesome blog post. This is so true and we are all "guilty" of it at some point or another. It is a fine line between sharing and trying to be helpful and having "mentionitis". Lol. Thanks!

  2. Also happens if in your old facility changes take place... you often "mention" how it used to be "in the old, comfortable" times :) Great blog! :)

  3. Wonderful! I'm a new keeper in my first full time job, and I catch myself mentioning experiences from my past internships quite a bit (usually more than I'd like) and ive been trying to tone it down a bit/find a balance, as well as make sure I know if my intentions are 'offering good input' and 'please trust me, ive done something similar before!!!' before i start spouting words haha :} Good to know I'm not the only one!

  4. Hi! This isn't relevant to the post, but I just wanted to say: thank you for providing a window into your work and the care of marine mammals in captivity. Like basically everyone else on earth, I saw Blackfish and was fairly appalled at what was presented. I always try to look at both sides of an issue, but a lot of the back and forth is quite defensive and vicious on both sides and it is very hard to cut through all that to the facts. You've never tried to convince us that you're right, you've just presented your viewpoint through discussing your work and it is both fascinating and informative. I have some history working in horse racing, another industry that is much maligned, so I relate to you, doing your best to care for the animals in your care while people accuse you of being a narcissistic sadist. I'm also a vegetarian who believes in limiting the harm we do, and it's kinda funny isn't it...we don't quite fit either side of the "leave animals alone" vs "animals exist for us to use" argument. It's just so complex.

    Honestly, i'm still not sure about the ethics of cetaceans in captivity, but because i can tell how much you love the animals you work with, i trust you when you say they are thriving. I doubt you could do this work if they weren't. Thanks for teaching me about the plight of marine mammal sanctuaries too, i live in Australia but i'm thinking of ways to help the ones here. Maybe volunteering to help with research or something. WOW this is long, but in summary: love the blog, may you eat many a donut.

    1. Hey Catty!

      Thanks so much for your comment and sorry it took me so long to reply. I really appreciate what you've said. I hate polarizing topics, especially ones like this where animal lives are at stake. There will never be a time where we will all share the same opinion on this topic, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from each other and work together, you know?

      It is a very complex issue and I think it boils down to the zoological industry always pushing to improve for the benefit of their animal populations, but also for how they connect to the general public and their conservation efforts for wild populations. Luckily, most places in the U.S. do this, but that doesn't mean we can just settle for the status quo.

      Anyways, thank you so much for your comments and if you ever have any questions or just want to chat about this stuff, I'm all ears!