Racial misdiagnoses happen all too often. It’s time to take providers to task.
How we see the world shapes who we choose to be — and sharing compelling experiences can frame the way we treat each other, for the better. This is a powerful perspective.
I remember first walking into my psychiatrist’s sterile office during my freshman year of college, ready to open up about my secret years-long battle with symptoms of a serious eating disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
I hadn’t told my parents, any family members, or friends. These were the first people that would know what I was going through. I could barely articulate my experiences because I was consumed by my internal monologue of shame and self-doubt.
Regardless, I challenged myself and sought out support from the school’s counseling center because my life had become truly unmanageable. I was isolated from friends on campus, barely eating and constantly exercising, and debilitated by my own self-hatred, depression, and fear.
I was ready to move on with my life and also make sense of confusing diagnoses I’d received from professionals before.
As I tried to receive treatment for these illnesses, mental health professionals to whom I entrusted my care misled me.
My eating disorder was diagnosed as adjustment disorder. My moodiness, a direct result of malnutrition, was mistaken for a serious chemical imbalance — bipolar disorder — and a reaction to a stressful life change.
My OCD, with an extreme obsession around cleanliness and compulsions to manage my fears around death, became paranoid personality disorder.
I’d opened up about some of the greatest secrets in my life only to be called “paranoid” and “maladjusted.” I can’t imagine many other scenarios that would’ve felt like such a betrayal.
Despite hardly exhibiting the symptoms of any of these diagnoses, the professionals I interacted with had no problem piling on labels only mildly connected to my real problems.
And no one had any problems doling out prescriptions — Abilify and other antipsychotics — for problems that I didn’t have, all while my eating disorder and OCD were killing me.
The process of being repeatedly misdiagnosed is frustrating and frightening, but not uncommon for Black people.
Even when we clearly display signs of poor mental health or of a specific mental illness, our mental health continues to be misunderstood — with deadly consequences.
Racial misdiagnosis isn’t a recent phenomenon. There’s a long standing tradition of Black people not having their mental health needs met.
For decades, Black men have been misdiagnosed and overdiagnosed with schizophrenia as their emotions are read as psychotic.
Black teenagers are 50 percent more likely than their white peers to show signs of bulimia, but get diagnosed significantly less, even if they have identical symptoms.
Black mothers are at a greater risk for postpartum depression, but are less likely to receive treatment.
Even though my symptoms for both illnesses were standard, my diagnoses were blurred by my Blackness.
I’m not the thin, affluent, white woman many white mental health professionals imagine when they think of someone with an eating disorder. Black people are rarely regarded as a demographic dealing with OCD. Our experiences are forgotten or ignored.
As for me, my eating disorder stayed active for over five years. My OCD escalated to the point where I literally couldn’t touch door knobs, elevator buttons, or my own face.
It wasn’t until I began working with a therapist of color that I received the diagnosis that saved my life and put me in treatment.
But I am far from the only person to have been failed by the mental health system.
The facts are staggering. Black people are 20 percent more likely to experience mental health problems compared to the rest of the population.
Black children under the age of 13 are twice as likely to die by suicide compared to their white peers. Black teenagers are also more likely to attempt suicide than white teens.
As Black people are disproportionately affected by mental health issues, more needs to be done to ensure we receive the necessary treatment. We deserve to have our mental health needs treated accurately and seriously.
Obviously, part of the solution is training mental health professionals on how to deal with Black mental illness. Moreover, more Black mental health professionals, who are less likely to mistake emotions for psychiatric disorders, need to be hired.
To protect ourselves against racial misdiagnosis, Black patients need to keep demanding more from our practitioners.
As a Black woman, especially early on in my healing, I never felt like I could ask for more than the bare minimum from providers.
I never questioned my doctors when they rushed me out of appointments. I never demanded that they answer my questions or spoke up for myself if a doctor said something I found problematic.
I wanted to be an “easy” patient and not rock the boat.
However, when I don’t hold my providers accountable, they’ll only continue to replicate their neglect and anti-Black behavior on others. I and other Black people have just as much of a right to feel as respected and cared for as anyone else.
We’re allowed to ask about medications and request tests be done. We are allowed to question — and report — anti-Black rhetoric from our providers and practitioners. We need to continue to state what we need and ask questions regarding our care.
For many, particularly fat Black people, this may be continually asking doctors to test for health issues compared to the usual assumption that symptoms are attributed to weight.
For others, it can mean requesting that doctors document and justify when they refuse medical testing or referrals, specifically for unresolved health issues.
It might mean switching providers more than once or trying a combination of treatments outside of Western medicine.
For all Black people continually disappointed by our current mental health care, it means a refusal to settle or compromise our care at the convenience of doctors who need to do better.
Black people deserve to feel well. Black people deserve to be well. The medical community needs to figure out how to understand, diagnose, and treat our mental health needs.
Prioritize our mental health like we matter — because we do.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman and freelance writer, musing about all things race, mental health, gender, art, and other topics. You can read more of her funny thoughts and serious opinions on Twitter.