When Doctors Only See My Mental Illness
The first time a doctor acted in a discriminatory, harmful and/or ignorant way toward me due to my mental illness was when I was 18 years old. I had just started taking birth control when I had a period that lasted a month, then two months. After two months I made an appointment with a gynecologist. This was basically my introduction to female reproductive health services, my first ever appointment was the one I had set to get the birth control prescription I had just started.
I showed up scared, embarrassed and desperate to make the bleeding stop. I had brought my boyfriend to offer moral support, and like a soldier, he came in with me for my appointment. I explained to the doctor what was happening, she performed a brief pelvic exam and asked about my medications. I told her that I was taking the birth control she had prescribed, and an antidepressant. She did a double take when I mentioned the antidepressant.
“Well, that’s your problem. You need to stop taking the antidepressant,” I was told, “it’s no good if you get pregnant.”
I explained that I was not planning on getting pregnant, which is exactly why I had scheduled my original appointment, for a prescription for birth control.
“Well, it’s also what’s causing all this bleeding. It’s not good for you and your body is showing you it doesn’t like it. Don’t take the antidepressant anymore.”
I was surprised to say the least. I got dressed with tears running down my cheeks. I knew that stopping the antidepressant was not an option for me. It had saved my life — it allowed me to get out of my depression and actually make it through what people (incorrectly in my opinion) refer to the best years of your life. Besides, why would the antidepressant cause the bleeding?
The answer is: it didn’t. The doctor just, for whatever reason, had a huge hatred for psych meds, at least that’s my best guess. I ended up seeing a different doctor who was recommended by a PCP friend of my fathers. This new doctor was adamant that antidepressants do not cause months-long periods. He said the birth control she put me on was not a good hormonal fit for me and was the true cause; he prescribed me a new birth control and very quickly my periods became regular.
Looking back, I am infuriated at that gynecologist. She did not look at me as a person, and she also did not seem to be practicing ethical, accurate medicine. She didn’t ask how long I had been taking the antidepressant (over a year at that point), or how bad my depression had been (severe). She didn’t ask, she is not a psychiatrist (thank god), but still thought she had the authority, with zero information about my mental health, to advise me to stop a life-saving drug. Looking back, I feel it is safe to say that, had I listened to her and stopped my medication, I would not be around today to tell this story.
I feel sad for the young woman I was, who was desperate and felt so alone that she had to bring her high school boyfriend with her to her appointment. I feel proud of that young woman too. It would have been easy to take the doctor at her word, blindly trusting her medical license and white coat. Even then, I knew there was a stigma against mental illnesses and that stigma had permeated this doctors brain so much that she was giving out dangerous medical advice that was outside of her field.
I wish I could say that was the only time a doctor looked at my mental illness or my medication list and made dangerous, incorrect assumptions that would have been disastrous had I not seen their prejudice for what it was.
Over a decade later I was still experiencing the consequences of preconceived notions by medical professionals. A recent example is when I went to my PCP for sinus pain and was prescribed an antibiotic. After getting my prescription filled, I went home and took the first dose. Not long after, I began to experience numbness in my lips and tongue. I also felt short of breath. I called my doctors office and was told through her nurse that, looking at my med list, it is safe to assume I was experiencing anxiety. “Just try to relax,” I was told.
This was not anxiety, which in this instance seemed to be code for “panic attack.” I had gone through more than my fair share of panic attacks and knew that was not what I was experiencing. While I was on the phone, my husband had grabbed some Benadryl for me and once the call ended we headed over to urgent care, where I was told that it was a reaction to the antibiotic. I was prescribed a different antibiotic and told not to take the original one ever again.
My allergic reaction, because of my depression and anxiety, was given the incorrect label of a panic attack. Would that have been the diagnosis had someone with no psychiatric medications had the exact experience? Likely not.
The mental illness stigma within the medical community is seldom talked about, but can have deadly effects. I am sure that doctors see patients who are experiencing mental health related symptoms often, but their mental illness diagnosis does not mean they are immune to all other ailments. If doctors don’t look past the mental illness, they can miss serious issues as well as further stigmatize an already marginalized group of patients. It scares me that this happens at all. It makes me really angry that it happened to me.
Doctors — please see your patients as people, not their diagnosis. Please look past their history of mental illness when a physical complaint is the reason they are seeing you. You may save a life.
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