Do doctors dismiss your physical health problems as mental health ones?

I’ve been having physical health problems for a long time, namely, weakness in my limbs (my left arm in particular), burning feelings in my hands, numbness, blurry vision which means I zone out while trying to focus my eyes, tremor (beyond normal essential tremor) and being a Clumsy Fucker Who Falls Over A Lot.  I should probably see a doctor about this, but I won’t.

The same way I didn’t see a doctor when I was passing blood clots through my arse (oh yes). And when I had an anal fissure so severe I couldn’t sit down without pain.  I can tell the world these things, but I can’t tell a doctor.

When I mentioned rapid weight gain to doctors, I got two responses:

1) You are eating too much.  Stop eating too much.  You must be binge eating (I wasn’t).

2) It’s your medication.  Tough shit. (But when *I* have said that, I’ve gotten response number 1).

Whenever I have attempted to broach a physical health problem with a doctor, it has always been dismissed as, “all in my head”.  As part of my mental illness.  As “anxiety”, or, “paranoia”.

This is despite the fact that I am taking medication that comes with health risks, namely, diabetes (which I don’t know if I have, but I do have PCOS), hypotension and tachycardia (which I do know I have). It’s despite the fact that the illness makes me predisposed to some health problems (as a small example, when I am ill, my body is under stress, and I get physically ill, such as the last time I had shingles).   If anything, doctors should be more alert to my physical health, rather than less.

It’s also despite the fact that, save for my recent mood, I have been stable for two years. The only way they would know I have a mental health problem is by looking at my notes.  And they do, instead of looking at the person in front of them.

So I don’t bother anymore.  I feel that when I go to see a doctor, I am just a disembodied brain.

People with mental illnesses die some twenty years younger than people without.  How much of that is because we’re too afraid to see a doctor, knowing it will be dismissed as all in our heads? Or being conditioned not to care, because doctors don’t?

Have your physical problems been dismissed as mental ones?  Or the other way around?  Do you avoid doctors, too?

Edit: Ooh, Rethink are launching a campaign on this very issue over here: Physical Health Charter

26 Responses

  1. Yes, I definitely know what you mean.

    I have been to see my (generally wonderful) GP about my physical health, but I always get the impression he doesn’t take things completely seriously and he does see it as part of my mental illness or a symptom of my medication I just have to learn to put up with. If I go for a physical issue he still primarily focusses on my mood.

    I end up putting it off and trying not to go or minimising my problems because I’m concerned he thinks I’m just making it all up.

    I too have frequent pain and numbness in my wrists/hands. I also experience IBS-like symptoms, a reoccuring rash and a few other issues – all of which are persistent and frustrating and in combination they cause me more distress than my mental health which on the whole is good at the moment.

    I’ve had blood tests and apparently they’re “normal” so now I’m left thinking maybe it is all in my head and I just have to put up with it. I’m reluctant to push the issue further, despite the fact I’m still in pain.

    This isn’t just limited to my GP either – my partner too thinks I’m a hypochrondriac and that any physical issues are in my head or me seeking attention. I just want to feel well!

    • I can relate to the feeling of just wanting to feel well. For over fifty years, i just wanted to feel normal. I would like to pass along the modalities that have helped me.Whole food vitamins connected with the treatment called orthomolecular psychiatry has been enormously helpful. It takes a while to obtain results, but the wait is worth it. Barbara Altman, author of Recovering from Depression, anxiety, and psychosis, available on amazon.

  2. I agree with what you say re physical problems but I would also like to tell you what it is to be over 60 with a mental health label and the loss of dignity now in the N.H.S.
    I hope you resolve your problems.
    I was discharged from Bath hospital at 2.00am with no money and means of getting home resulting in a readmission for physical problems. David.

    • I have mixed feelings about labels. They tend to put us in boxes. We are so much more than our diagnoses. We are our strengths and talents. That’s who we are!

      • Hello Barbara via Seaneen blog,
        I like your above statement with all your other comments here and look forward to reading your book.
        David.

        • Thank you so much David. It took me eight years to write it because I had to go back to so much pain. My strengths in music and writing have pulled me through.
          Tell me about you, David. What are your passions?

  3. I’ve had both good and bad experiences with doctors over physical health stuff. Mostly I have a brilliant GP who always listens to what I tell her, but A&E stff have been a problem in the past. I have asthma and on several occasions have had to go to A&E because of an asthma attack and been told I’m having a panic attack and given a bag to breathe into – all this without a simple examination, only to later be put on a nebuliser because it was asthma after all. It’s very frustrating!

  4. I have a wonderful GP who always takes me seriously (though he always starts with the ‘how are you feeling these days’ mental questions first) but at my surgery it’s super hard to get an appointment with him, so I end up seeing someone who reads my notes, sees schizophrenia – go in for a cold and come out with a crisis team referral! I have sinus tachycardia but it was dismissed as anxiety for a long time, in fact until my last hospital stay a couple of weeks ago when my heart rate hit over 140, the doctor basically shit himself and suddenly I was getting blood tests, ECG’s, the whole shebang!

    Most things I go to the doctor for end up being dismissed as anxiety, like when I couldn’t wee for over 24 hours and was in excruciating pain nobody would take me seriously until I projectile vomited over A&E, then it was them giving me the anxiety telling me I might have kidney failure! (Luckily they were just a shit hospital and didn’t have a clue)

    I’ve also had the weight gain issues. Part of that is my fault because I refuse to be weighed, so I then get a lecture on exercise/diet and have to explain that actually I eat very little (don’t know if they actually believe that or just humour me) but then I explain that I eat less now than I did when I was a size 12, and they’re like ah! antipsychotics can do that, sorry there’s nothing we can do about it but try to keep your weight under control because it can cause problems! Absolute nightmare.

    Luckily I found out today my mental health team and GP are now sort of trying to work together to keep me not dead as they’re a bit worried, so I’m going to be having regular reviews/blood tests/ECGs to check everything is in order.

  5. They used to. Before I found my current doctors, I had an awful, humiliating experience with a GP who told me I was obviously just *uptight*, demanded to know about my self harm scars (when I was there for specific pain) and that there was nothing he could do about my chest wall pain anyway because it was friday evening.

    Shortly after I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia which is kind of a stigmatized diagnosis in and of itself. I really, really hated having it on my record because I’ve heard such awful things about how patients are treated. Even with my good, current doctors, I noticed a shift in the way I was treated once it was confirmed that my symptoms were actually down to Ehlers-Danlos, POTS and sleep apnea. I feel like I’m taken more seriously now.

    I have had to push for every single diagnostic test to confirm the above, and honestly I think the POTS in particular was brushed off as anxiety for a long time – even by the doctors I trust.

  6. With my regular doctors, I don’t have a problem, but I do if I have to see anyone else. I’ve even had one doctor try to dismiss my Ehlers Danlos because I’m Bipolar. (I was diagnosed with EDS four years before I ever had ANY psych issues, and most of my family has it. It’s something I’ve had most of my life. *sigh*) Frustrating.

    Really, the only problem is if I’m seeing someone new, or someone I’ll only see once.

  7. I’ve had several doctors imply that a physical concern is in my head only. One time i went about worsening PMT symptoms and he said to me ‘Don’t forget that you are a psychiatric patient so all of this could just be too do with that.
    Down right dangerous attitude and I know a good few people who have had doctors dismiss serious physical illness down to being psychosomatic. They shouldn’t make assumptions, and should run the same tests as they would for people presenting with no mental health record at all.

    • Some members of my family have accused me of being a hypochondriac simply out of being misinformed about the nature of psychiatric problems. Barbara altman, author of Recovering fromDepression, Anxiety, and psychosis, available on amazon.

  8. You may be assigned to one GP or doctor but you always have the right to a second opinion. I don’t like my GP so, I always make an effort to see another doctor who I feel listens to me more. It started by accident, when my GP was on leave one time when I requested an appointment but, I haven’t seen him since. ;-)

    I don’t know much about medications and I’m certainly not qualified to give any opinion but, from what I have read elsewhere, it does sound as though some of your physical symptoms could be caused by certain medications and, if that’s the case then, a doctor should be able to adjust your dosage(s) accordingly.

    I hope you get some better help soon. :-)

  9. I had enough when I went to see a GP to get antibiotics for UTI that didn’t want to go away… I walked out without antibiotics and was told to go see my psychiatrist. Funny? Not really.
    Now I keep my mental and physical health separated – when I have a physical problem I go to a different doctor’s office where they have no info about my mental diagnosis. The downside is that you have to tell the pharmacist to check if there are any interactions with medications but so far I had no issues with that.

  10. Reblogged this on other side of town and commented:
    G Wiz, I was looking about for an article on the recent debacle which exposed the NHS being responsible for multiple murders. In this post, there is more mention of NHS failings but in particular, the mistreatment that vulnerable and distressed people are subject to, and yes, some of them, I imagine, are white.

    If white people are catching hell from the NHS, you know that in this instance, stupidity is complimenting malince. Since you black folk are already seen as “mentally impaired” then having a (second) diagnosis will only compund the disaster.

  11. A lot of drs just do not listen. I remember complaining of the wuzzyheadedness which is a key feature of CFS, which I have had and still have to some degree and my GP wanted to think I was describing ANXIETY. When really I was describing something far closer to drowsiness than anything you’d feel when you’re too keyed up…

    also you could play her like a piano. If I wanted sleeping pills I had to make sure those pills were the very first thing I mentioned. If I left mention of the pills to the end, she wanted to assume they were of little importance and so inessential.

    Oh and she was a supercillious cow and I’m so glad I’m not on her list any more.

  12. Yes it’s true, some doctors can be such assholes, mainly the ones who just don’t know what the f*ck they are doing, and are too scared to tell you that they don’t have a clue. A good doctor always listens and always takes whatever you have to say about your mind/body/spirit health very seriously.

    I’ve been lucky enough to have an awesome psychiatrist who has even helped me figure out stuff my general practitioner should have caught (because the problems appeared to physical- but it’s all connected. I mean the brain runs everything.)

    I got really sick in 2009, as in I could barely move an NONE of the western medicine assholes could figure it out. One of them tried to act like it was just me being crazy. What a jerk. So I started going to the alternatives: the chiropractors, energy healers, tappers and accupuncturist. Honestly, they did far more for pain relief then the peeps on the western front…so keep an open mind…don’t trust big pharma… and above all else don’t give up! keep going to doctors until you find one you trust and then stick with him/her!

    • Amber, I have gone the alternative route as well. Whole food vitamins plus a healthy diet have worked absolute wonders for me. Feel free to check out my facebook fan page, Recovering from Depression, anxiety, and Psychosis for more information. I’m sorry I don’t have the link copied. I guess just go to facebook, and type it in the browser at the top.

      In the meantime, tell me about you! How are you doing?

      • Hey Barbara,

        I’m great! I know the way I left this comment up, it seemed like I might still be sick, but nope. Like I said, I’ve been doing the alternative stuff for a while now and the more I do alternative stuff the better I feel!

        I don’t really even have to take medication for my bipolar disorder anymore- and I’m still great!

        Meditation is key, I think! I will check out your FB page.

        Peace!

        Amber Lisa

  13. Yes, lots of GPs are very ignorant. They prejudice themselves against patients who have had the misfortune of having breakdowns by believing in psychiatrists’ mumbo jumbo.

  14. Many GPs are ignorant about hypoglycemia which is a common illbes that can create all sorts o weird symptoms. It is nutritional,illness, and this is why doctors are not familiar with it. Read:
    What is Hypoglycemia?
    http://www.hypoglycemia.asn.au/2011/what-is-hypoglycemia/, which can be treated by going on a hypoglycemic diet (http://www.hypoglycemia.asn.au/2011/the-hypoglycemic-diet/)

  15. Many doctors are unaware of hypoglycemia (http://www.hypoglycemia.asn.au/2011/what-is-hypoglycemia/,) which causes the over-production of stress hormones. These form the symptoms of mood disorders over which you would not have conscious control.
    This can be treated without resort to drugs by going on a Hypoglycemic Diet (http://www.hypoglycemia.asn.au/2011/the-hypoglycemic-diet/)

    Hypoglycemia causes many of the symptoms that are misdiagnosed as “mental illness”. It is the forerunner of diabetes II and yet most doctors are unable to diagnose as a separate disease distinct from diabetes. Dr George Samra’s test for hypoglycemia as distinct from diabetes is explained at:

    Testing for Hypoglycemia,
    http://www.hypoglycemia.asn.au/2012/self-help-website-for-personal-growth/#Testing

  16. Hello

    Thank you for your story. It really resonated with me, I have experienced a lot of the same symptoms. The numbness in my left arm I put down to panic attacks, I have IBS which gets worse when I am very mentally unstable, my meds make me clumsy and dizzy so I fall over a lot and bump into things all the time.

    Just because a symptom is caused by your brain doesn’t mean it’s all in your head, but it is linked. For example, anxiety lowers stomach pH, the bacterium which causes ulcers (Helicobacter pylori) thrives in acidic conditions, so it could be hypothesised that anxiety causes stomach ulcers.

    The weight issue is really difficult – all antipsychotics are indicated for weight gain but not all psychiatrists think this is a significant side-effect and will ignore concerns. My psychiatrist is very sympathetic about my problems with weight gain due to taking quetiapine, and although he’d like me to take more, he understands why I want to take less (I am terrified of getting diabetes and when I gain weight I hate how I look and feel).

    My advice would be to tell your psychiatrist and GP about any physical problems you are experiencing; for example I have medication which helps my IBS because although it is likely caused by anxiety, that doesn’t mean it’s not a real physical illness and you may well be pleasantly surprised by their willingness to take you seriously and help you with the physical symptoms of your mental illness – after all, if your brain is not part of your body, what is?!

    Good luck everyone x

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