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Why Choosing a Psychiatrist Is Challenging as Someone With a Physical Disability

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The past few months have found me in the market for a brand-new psychiatrist, and I’m frantically searching away.  The process of sifting through a multitude of qualified professionals, checking potential coverage, and scouring ratings sites is a daunting prospect for anyone, but as a woman with a disability, choosing a psychiatrist who will understand and respect me seems like a Herculean task.

In my blissful naïveté, I used to assume that any psychiatrist I visited only needed to be knowledgeable about treating my mental health. After all, wasn’t the entire purpose of sitting in that stuffy waiting room, then explaining the rationale behind my behavior to be prescribed medication to keep me emotionally stable?  If my brain was happily full of serotonin, why were my neurological differences (and by extension, their effects on my body) even relevant?

Of course, I strove to be honest about my cerebral palsy as well as my mental health conditions because I’ve long believed I’m better off providing a clear picture of my medical history up front.  But I discovered I was unprepared for the sheer ignorance my disclosures would reveal.

There was the psychiatrist who insisted that my CP couldn’t possibly affect my energy consumption because it was “mild” and I could “move around fine.” There was the doctor who presumptuously remarked, point blank, that I “probably didn’t play sports in high school then.” And there was the psychiatric nurse practitioner who, as I revealed my diagnosis, shot me a pitying glance that affected my self-esteem for the remainder of the day.

Needless to say, I’m wary of definitively settling on a new psychiatrist.  The thought that even the top psychiatrists in my area could unintentionally highlight their internalized ableism leaves me frozen in my tracks. I have no clue what will inadvertently pop out of the doctors’ mouths until I consult with them, which deeply worries me. What if no one respects me? What if I just end up wasting my time?

The truth is, I, along with other people with disabilities, shouldn’t have to worry about providers’ reactions to disclosure at all. Unfortunately, the majority of medical professionals receive little or no disability-oriented training, leaving us with the responsibility of educating medical doctors about our physical and mental idiosyncrasies (and hoping they’ll be empathetic, kind and caring in response).

It shouldn’t be on us, as people with health conditions, to fight to be seen as the experts on our bodies, explain the nature of our medical conditions in-depth, or educate our doctors on why their well-meaning comments reinforce negative stereotypes of people with disabilities. Doctors of every specialty should receive frequent training seminars on how to respond to minority populations’ diverse perspectives and needs — and then put their newfound knowledge into practice. Medical professionals everywhere must lead with tact, respect and care for their patients, regardless of background.

Until that miraculous day comes, I’ll continue researching psychiatrists, trusting my judgment and hoping that this time, I’ll find my perfect match — someone who understands that my cerebral palsy affects my mental health but does not define me.

Getty image by Fizkes.

Originally published: June 24, 2019
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