There are many types of discrimination and stigma around mental health. So damaging, it impacts 63% of individuals living with mental illness alone. Social stigma holds people for believing they can live a fulfilled existence in spite of diagnosis and symptoms of mental illness. The number of studies showing what it’s called “diagnostic overshadowing” that is, over attributing a patient’s symptoms of a particular condition. In many cases, it means the medical morbidity of being undiagnosed and untreated is rising. This trend presents alarming numbers, making us, the sufferers, sicker and self-conscious of our own efforts to live a “normal life”.
I have experienced stigma in its many forms: social, perceived, and self-stigma. But I was not ready to meet humiliation from my psychiatrist. It was a rainy Saturday morning with the perfect cold weather announcing Fall season is around the corner, meaning soon I’d be enjoying the autumn scenery, tons of pumpkin spice lattes, apple pie, etc.… Excited of the sudden change of weather, I wore a pair of black boots, jeans, and a black shirt. Would see my psychiatrist, and then head over with my family to a used bookstore. I felt anxious; it’d always make me nervous to see her, her manners have been rather judgmental since the first time we met. Due to financial hardship and coverage from insurance, the necessity of my medication meant urgent priority. No big deal, I have to see her every 3 months, our meeting lasting less than 10 minutes each time. This time, though, everything felt different. As soon as we arrived at her office, a dry greeting with a touch of indifference was enough reason to ignite my anxiety. I realized she was upset about me being late for my appointment. Confused, I corroborated to her the time of our meeting since her first statement was not truthful; I’d arrived early for my appointment as usual. None of that matter, she argued emphasizing “because you’re late, I have to say sorry to my other patients for not meeting in time,” Her dark eyes followed my movements, the atmosphere felt dense and unpleasant.
As a patient struggling with anxiety and depression among other disorders, being trapped in a room building trust with a professional should be able to understand my most inner thoughts and fears; is the physician’s job to help their patients. If the bridge of trust doesn’t lie a strong foundation, in this case, my mental, emotional and physical health, is at risk. It is extremely important to trust a psychiatrist and work together as a team.
She became curious about the color of my hair (A very intense crimson red hair). “Mmm, do you like that color on your hair?” Yes, I love red hair. “But tell me, why red? Does it symbolize anything to you?” No, I like red, I said bluntly. She smirked while examining my clothing, my purse, my boots and my overall appearance with no shame writing God knows what on her notes. There I was wondering what the fuck her problem is. After a painful silence, she spoke again, “You did not attend your last appointment” You see Dr. I’m a single mom meaning I receive none child support money or any help at all, and my son suffers from ADHD and I had to choose to either come here to see you or pay for his medicine. “Ms. Ortez is not like I’m charging you $300 for a visit,” she said sarcastically, but Dr. you must understand, I’m alone and my children depend on me. “I see a Doctor as well Ms. Ortez, my patients I’m rich, but I have responsibilities as well.” Before I could say anything, she became intrigued about my boyfriend. “What does he do for a living?” “Where did you meet him?”.
When I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, she mentioned the list of medications I’m on. “Let’s see, you take Lexapro, Topomax” hmm, Doc, no, I’m on Celexa, Vistaril, etc.…”No Stephanie, you’re wrong, you take Lexapro, Topomax” Doctor could you please confirm that chart has the correct name on it? Without getting into more details, my suspicions were true: Her assistant had handed over the wrong chart. After many “I’m sorry” from my psychiatrist I knew I had to get out there and fast. Her theatrics didn’t finish there, astonished, she demanded her assistant. In horror, the poor assistant apologized for her mistake.
I held none grudges against her because the degradation didn’t involve the wrong document. The humiliation began as soon my psychiatrist slash judgment upon my physical appearance. As a reward for her condescending treatment, she offered me a Starbucks gift card. As anyone can imagine, I spent the rest of my weekend in tears. I felt broken, shameful, and stupid. I did not engage in any confrontation with her because it’s not worth it. I took refuge in my family, and two dear friends who comforted me in those moments. The outpouring support is immeasurable, so, I’ve received a few messages from others detailing their tales of horror with their psychiatrist and primary care doctors.
There is a growing stigma in psychiatry, many doctors, and mental health providers are reluctant to risk talking about mental health discrimination. It is no wonder why many won’t seek the medical attention they need or fall into the class of being misdiagnosed because the mental health community won’t commit themselves to the time required for evaluations, and many times, doctors are suffering from stress, depression, etc… themselves, and won’t allow to be treated. The only way to stop stigma is to keep talking. Don’t know where to start? By joining mental health organizations, writing about your experiences on a blog, or in my case, send a letter to my psychiatrist’s supervisor for the maltreatment I had to endure.
This isn’t about pity or a cry for attention; it is the fundamental right for every person to be treated with respect regardless of their beliefs, appearances, gender, etc… if the majority of people working in the mental health field knows these concepts by heart, why the number of patients discriminated by their doctors keeps growing? Do I need more therapy in order to deal with those who really need therapy? This is not a sarcastic joke; it’s a valid point that keeps me wondering if a change will finally turn out for the better.