In 23 Years of Living With Chronic Illness, a Doctor Has Never Asked About My Mental Health
While recovering from my recent hip replacement, many people have asked me the same question: “Are you OK?” Of course, we all know what that means. Are you OK mentally is what they are asking (the word “mentally” often said in hushed tones and through gritted teeth, for fear of the neighbors overhearing). Initially, I answered how I normally would. I said I was OK. But the more I heard the question, the more it occurred to me that throughout the years of going to hospitals, of countless injections and blood tests caused by my struggle with arthritis and even now a hip replacement, all the questions I could remember were about my physical well-being.
I cannot remember the last time a doctor asked how my mental health was.
I frantically tried to think back to days when I was younger, if maybe a doctor had asked when I was too young to even consider the question, but I had no recollection of any such conversation. Perhaps because I was diagnosed with arthritis at such a young age, they assumed there was no need to ask? Perhaps as I grew up, they thought I was dealing with it (most of the time, I was). Maybe I was asked but just can’t remember? But the more I thought back, the more frustrated I became.
I am aware that I do not go to a doctor for my mental health. I see doctors who examine me physically and specifically treat my arthritis. But I am not bothered, to some degree, by the fact I have never been asked if I am alright mentally – I am bothered why I have never been asked.
There are days when I don’t feel like doing anything and want to curl into a ball and cry the day away, but I believe that is normal, right? Of course, there have been times when my arthritis has had an impact on my mental stability, where pain has left me drained and disinterested in activities and relationships. But that’s alright, isn’t it? And sometimes I don’t meet up with friends or I can’t go to work because it is too physically exhausting to lift my foot off the ground. But surely that wouldn’t impact my mental health, right? And there have been times when the pain has been so unbearable, where medication has caused such a volatile reaction from my body that I no longer wanted to be in this world.
But that’s normal, isn’t it?
These are thoughts that have run through my head due to chronic illness. These are thoughts my doctors should have helped me with but never did.
On the whole, I think I am “OK.” I would be concerned if I was not impacted at some point by my illness. What concerns me the most is the blatant lack of acknowledgement from doctors concerning my mental well-being. There have been times where I would have benefitted immensely from talking to someone about my illness and how it affected me. But I was young and afraid. What is worse, nobody showed me I was allowed to speak out. Perhaps doctors merely assume that those with a chronic illness will not be impacted? Perhaps they simply do not have the time to ask. But in an ideal world, what doctors should be saying to people with a chronic illness (or any illness) is, “Has your illness affected you mentally? Because if it has, that is OK. We can help.”
Of course, doctors are trained in a specific area. I go primarily to the doctors so they can treat my specific ailment: my arthritis. So surely I am overreacting. Surely, because I see doctors who are there only for my physical illness, I should not “complain” that they do not speculate or aid in my mental health?
But to me, that is still not justifiable. Like so many other issues surrounding mental health, I am trying to make excuses. Especially for people, like me, who have struggled for a long period of time. I have had arthritis for 23 years (all my life). I am shocked a doctor has never thought, “I wonder if this girl is alright. I wonder if she should talk to somebody about how this illness has impacted her life.” But it is evident I am the product of blissful neglect. I have taught myself not to discuss anything about my illness and how it impacts me, but that doesn’t make it right. How are we supposed to know that physical pain causes mental struggling too? How are we supposed to know the effect of a chronic illness on the mind is normal? No one ever said, so how would I have known?
There is such a stigma towards coping with illness; I have actively gone out of my way not to talk about it. It troubles me that when we see someone with a physical impairment, we often forget to acknowledge that they could be mentally affected. It troubles me that so often people are forced to remain silent.
So, to answer the question, “Am I OK?” Yes. I am today. But I won’t always be. So why do people try their hardest to remain ignorant? Why do we still punish ourselves and believe we are “OK” to appease the people around us who are too uncomfortable to talk about it? I am now at peace with my illness, but I wasn’t always. And just because I am dealing with this illness mentally, doesn’t mean somebody else in my position is.
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Thinkstock photo via Dynamic Graphics.