Mental health. Self-Care. Anxiety. Depression. Suicide.

These are all words that have come to the forefront of veterinary medicine in recent years. It is finally a topic that is being addressed in seminars, conferences and articles. It is a real problem.

I have heard many theories about why it is such a problem in our field. Intense/Type A personalities, chronic stress, high debt to income ratios, long hours, the desire to help everyone, mistreatment from clients, the loss of patients, coping with disease day after day… the list goes on. Many of us had some level of depression or anxiety before we went into vet med, so perhaps it is an even deeper issue of the types of people drawn to this field?

This last week, another factor has been on my mind. One that seems to be discussed less than the rest, but one that I suspect may be one of the biggest contributing factors. Maybe it is even an elephant in the room, and I’m not supposed to bring it up?

What is this factor? It isn’t what the world brings through the doors of our clinics. It is what WE bring through the doors of our clinics. It is work place bullying and emotional abuse, and I think it is a bigger problem than we want to admit.

This can occur in a number of forms, from a head tech bullying other support staff, to managers, owners and veterinarians bullying the other veterinarians or clinic staff. I am not talking about the occasional harsh remark or bad mood, I am referring to targeted-ongoing abuse.

This week, a technician I know and deeply respect was targeted, blamed and humiliated for a mistake that was absolutely the responsibility of the veterinarian she was working for. She was shamed and reprimanded by one veterinarian while the responsible veterinarian stood by and said nothing. Later, she was told that she would not be allowed to explain her side of the story and was demoted.

This cycle can become frighteningly similar to domestic abuse. The abuser gains a position of power and uses it to crush someone who doesn’t feel they can stand up to them. And the behavior continues. The victim is torn down enough that they feel they have little or no worth, and have nowhere to go, because who would want them? Some victims are in a healthier place and deal with or leave the situation quickly. Some stay until they can’t take it anymore and have to get out. But then, how to get out? How do you muster the strength to take a chance on finding a new position and moving on when you’ve been convinced you aren’t of value? What if you are dependent on the abuser for a good job reference? Some choose the ultimately tragic way to get out, having been effectively taught that their lives have no value.

In these situations, abuse from clients or the loss of a patient may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but perhaps we would all have more reserves to handle these situations if we built each other up instead of tearing each other down.

I hope that many who read this will not have experienced these issues, but I suspect the vast majority of people in this profession will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Perhaps the bullies in our clinics learned this habit from being bullied themselves? Perhaps it is an expression of “imposter syndrome,” the fear that we aren’t really perfect and someone will find us out? 

Fellow veterinarians: We work in a small world. The words we say about each other not only erode the public’s trust in our entire profession, but they can quickly get back to the veterinarian being talked about. Let’s stop tearing each other down. And let’s stop allowing bullying in our clinics.

We need to be aware of what is happening within our own walls. We need to pay attention to our managers and people in lead positions. When staff complains about being picked on or bullied, it should raise a red flag. 

Clinic owners, please learn to be leaders, not just bosses. Don’t let your managers (or clients) tear down your associates and support staff. Don’t feel the need to prove how much more skill and knowledge your experience has given you than your younger associates have. Don’t tear them down to build yourselves up. Support and teach them. Build them into great veterinarians. 

Veterinarians, remember that our techs are the backbone of the clinic. They catch so many of our mistakes for us that we can’t afford to blame them for the one they might miss if it was ultimately our mistake. We need to be leaders, admit our own humanity and admit our own mistakes. We need to eradicate the cycles of abuse from our clinics. Maybe if we are intentional about what WE bring into our clinics, maybe we’ll have the emotional reserves to handle everything else that comes through the door?

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the editorial team.