Misdiagnosed: Addressing Mental Illness When You Don’t Know What You Have

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Getting a diagnosis is often seen as the first step to recovery from mental illness. When you visit a mental health expert for treatment, it’s often assumed that any diagnosis the expert produces is correct. However, there are cases where a person may be wrongly diagnosed, or the expert is unable to come up with a specific diagnosis. This is known as misdiagnosis, and it happens more often than you may imagine.

Research has shown that many Americans have been misdiagnosed and are being issued prescription medication for conditions they do not have. Some of the commonly misdiagnosed mental illnesses include bipolar disorder, depression, and even obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Charita Brown, author of Defying the Verdict: My Bipolar Life, is an African-American woman who is living with bipolar disorder, but was originally misdiagnosed with schizophrenia. She attributes her misdiagnosis to cultural bias. “Psychiatrists sometimes erred when diagnosing African-American patients with bipolar disorder,” she said. “Unfortunately, they didn’t attribute that illness to people of my ethnicity, and our emotions were sometimes misread as psychotic.”

How Do People Get Misdiagnosed?

Apart from misdiagnosis that stems from racial and cultural factors, there are other reasons why a person may be wrongly diagnosed with mental illness. One factors may be the professional’s uncertainty about the criteria for diagnosis, said Ramin J. Mojtabai, in his study on the misdiagnosis of depression. Some doctors may diagnose patients with the most obvious condition that comes to mind, after listening to their symptoms.

Sharon, a communications expert, said that she was misdiagnosed with borderline personality disorder even though some of her symptoms did not fit the diagnosis. “I engaged in self-harming activities and I dissociated myself from people, but I was not extremely impulsive or manic,” she said. “I eventually realized, thanks to help from dedicated therapists, that I was suffering from the effects of childhood trauma.”

A misdiagnosed mental illness may not be the fault of the provider alone. Sometimes, when a person fails to disclose all their symptoms, the doctor may be led to an improper diagnose. Many people do not recognize certain emotions and behaviors as symptoms of mental illness, and therefore do not report them. Other people may also feel shame, embarrassment, or stigma as a result of their symptoms, and may find it difficult to share them with their provider.

The Dangers of a Misdiagnosed Mental Illness

Whatever the reason for a misdiagnosis, there is no doubt that an improper diagnosis has a negative effect on a person’s health and wellbeing. When a person is wrongly diagnosed with mental illness, it keeps them from receiving proper treatment, and the condition may worsen if left unchecked. Not receiving the correct diagnosis can also have far-reaching effects on a person’s emotional and psychological welfare.

A misdiagnosis can also lead to the prescription of the wrong medication to a patient. This can be extremely dangerous, as some of these medications have the tendency of worsening the symptoms of an illness, if wrongly administered. For instance, it has been shown that certain antidepressants tend to heighten the symptoms found in people with bipolar depression when they are wrongly prescribed.

After he was misdiagnosed with persistent depressive disorder, Rick, a former pro-swimmer was prescribed antidepressants which made him feel more irritable and drowsier than he ever had been. He later came to understand that he was grieving the fact that he could not go back to competitive swimming as a result of an injury. “All my symptoms were valid, but weren’t crucial enough for medications,” he said. “I just accepted it as it was, and soon I started to feel better on my own.”

Apart from these effects, the high level of misdiagnosed mental illnesses among people of color, especially African-Americans, has contributed in the perpetuation of the stereotype that these groups of people rarely struggle with mental illness, which is harmful because it keeps members of this vulnerable population from seeking treatment when they are faced with a serious mental health issue.

Addressing a Misdiagnosed Mental Illness

If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness, and you find that the medication or method of therapy prescribed has failed to alleviate your symptoms, the first thing you must do is consult a specialist for a second opinion. Mental health misdiagnosis happens, so you must begin treatment with a thorough psychological assessment by a skilled provider, who will hopefully be able to better identify the condition or disorder, and offer a more effective treatment plan.

Making your family and friends a part of the diagnostic process can help as well. Wherepossible, have those who are close to you speak with the specialist, so that they can bring up any observations regarding your emotions and pattern of behavior. This can help where you may have missed some symptoms, or forgotten to mention them to your health provider.

Help your doctor help you

A correct diagnosis can only be made when a person works cooperatively with their provider. This means that you must be open and honest about your symptoms so that your health provider can prescribe a treatment plan that works. Sometimes, you may be too embarrassed to reveal all of your symptoms. This is why it is important to seek treatment in an environment where you feel comfortable, which prioritizes confidentiality and support for patients, so that you can feel safe while sharing painful or embarrassing experiences and emotions. Building a trusting relationship with your doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist enables you to disclose information that will help in your journey to recovery.

If you find it difficult to remember your symptoms or emotions at any point, keeping a journal of your day-to-day experience can help you refresh your memory when you have to disclose your symptoms to the doctor.

Finally, it is important to note that arriving at the correct diagnosis is not always easy, but individuals affected by mental illness are advised to work carefully and diligently with professionals to arrive at the correct diagnosis so as not to worsen the original underlying issue.

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