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How Doctors Discriminate Against the Mentally Ill
Many people know that those with a mental illness face prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives. This often happens in workplace settings but also in personal lives. What many people don’t know is that people with a mental illness also face discrimination by healthcare professionals—sometimes even professionals in psychiatry.
Doctors Ignore Health Complaints of the Mentally Ill
People with serious mental illness actually have more health concerns than your average person, yet their health complaints are often ignored. Many times doctors treat any physical complaint as if it were caused by the mental illness—to the point where people with a mental illness are accused of imagining their health concerns or of simply being paranoid.
For example, a person sees his or her doctor about complaints of daily fatigue. The doctor may give the average person blood tests to see if the person is depleted in a vitamin or nutrient or has a thyroid problem. The person with a mental illness, however, is often treated with nothing as the fatigue is assumed to be part of his illness (especially depression). This is in spite of the fact that it’s not uncommon for people with mental illness also to have thyroid and other issues that can manifest with symptoms like fatigue.
When a person has bipolar disorder he is no longer a patient, he is a “patient with bipolar disorder.” He is placed in the psych ward no matter what his complaint. The mental illness is first thing the doctor sees when she looks at any patient record and the first thing she thinks of when treating the patient.
Doctors Ignore Complaints of Side Effects
In addition to ignoring everyday complaints, doctors (often psychiatrists) often also ignore complaints of medication side effects. Two common complaints, for example, are weight gain and sexual side effects. While these complaints are quite legitimate and can impact overall health and quality of life, doctors often shrug off these concerns are being an overreaction by the patient. Doctors often consider these complaints “minor” even if the patient doesn’t. Moreover, if a non-mentally ill patient complained of these things, they would likely get more attention and be taken more seriously.
Mentally ill patients who complain are often just considered “difficult” and the complaining itself is seen as a symptom. Doctors can’t fix every side effect, of course, but that doesn’t mean the concerns aren’t legitimate and shouldn’t be addressed.
People with a Mental Illness Die Years Sooner
And all of this is borne out by the fact that people with mental illness die years sooner than the average person often of preventable diseases. Now, ignoring health complaints is not the only reason for this, but it certainly contributes to it. And doctors, knowing this fact, should be considerably more attentive to health complaints by people with a mental illness—not less.
So we, as patients, unfortunately, must advocate even harder for ourselves. We cannot allow the prejudicial feelings some doctors have for people with mental illness to hamper our access to quality care. And if we cannot advocate for ourselves, we need to draft a loved one to help. (It’s much harder to dismiss healthcare concerns when a “non-crazy” loved one is sitting next to the patient.)
We must demand better care. We must demand to be treated like everyone else. Because our health concerns are like everyone else’s—they’re real.
For more on my thoughts on healthcare equality for the mentally ill, see my recent appearance on HuffPo Live.