Does Your Doctor Not Understand Mental Illness?

I am often frustrated when one of my clients goes to see their doctor for a physical ailment and is basically dismissed, or at best, condescended to, simply because they have a record of mental illness, either past or present.

It seems that once you have suffered from depression or anxiety, or worse still, one of the major mental illnesses, every little twinge, whether it be in your stomach or your big toe, is often put down to a symptom of mental illness. Yes, they will tell you that “It’s all in your mind, dear.”

I once had a patient who was in a mental health facility and was complaining of bad chest pain on breathing. She was told by her attending doctor that “it will all go away once the medication kicks in.” This client was very familiar with the symptoms of her anxiety disorder and that these particular chest symptoms were not part of that checklist. Nevertheless, she was treated with disdain by the nursing staff, one of whom told her that she needed to have a good run round the block.

This woman was eventually in so much pain that she could not walk, and decided to crawl along the corridor to the “normal” section of the hospital. There a doctor examined her and found she had double pleurisy, which of course accounted for the severe pain she was experiencing. She was immediately put on antibiotics and within two days she was feeling sufficiently well to discharge herself. She no longer wanted to be “cared for” by the staff in the mental health wing, who did little but humiliate her.

This woman was very upset by the time she came to see me, and who could blame her? There she was in a private mental health facility where even her own doctor would not listen to her and put her symptoms down to her mental illness.

It’s high time that doctors understand that a diagnosis of mental illness does not equal a diagnosis of hypochondria, not does it imply a low IQ and an inability to be in touch with one’s own body. This woman, to her credit, did put in a complaint, both to her doctor and the hospital. However, many patients are afraid to do this, as it can and does, comprise any treatment they may need in the future. Hence the culture of keeping quiet continues.

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