Stigma Via Health Professionals

Click to read Cate’s bio

Click to read Cate’s bio

I wasn’t expecting it from this source.  Actually I had seen this particular health professional about five times and had decided that she knew her stuff.  What’s more, I had decided that she was responding to what I was saying to the extent that I felt comfortable with her.  A big thing.

But I admit I had forgotten a brief moment in my first appointment with her when she responded to something I said with “you haven’t got a mental illness“.  For me, that’s a pretty big thing for me to ‘forget‘ considering I’ve had 20+ years of being treated for a number of mental illnesses.  I think I decided at the time that I’d give her the benefit of the doubt. We were, after all, new to each other.

I wasn’t actually there to deal with any of my mental illnesses.  I was at a Pain Management Clinic, for treatment of pain related to Fibromyalgia. To put this in context, I had been waiting over three years to be accepted to my region’s Pain Clinic.  Other sufferers of fibro had told me that getting into a Pain Clinic was ‘the answer‘ to how pain was dominating my life since I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia.

The Psychologist and her colleagues were aware of my medical history, including mental illness. But it is important to remember that I was there for treatment of pain and not the mental illnesses.

We were now having this particular conversation because a few days back I had mentioned to one of her colleagues (an Occupational Therapist) that I thought I was depressed. I mentioned this because he was wanting me to set goals and to find some more direction in my life. That’s pretty hard, although admittedly not impossible, to do when you’re depressed, and it was what I was trying to say.

My impression had been that he immediately dropped me like a ‘hot potato’. There was silence when I mentioned my depression, and then he said we wouldn’t schedule anymore (previously) weekly appointments until he spoke to his colleague. I admit I felt discarded. The temperature in the room had suddenly turned frosty, seemingly because I had referred to depression as a reason why I was finding it difficult to do what he wanted.

So here I was, with his colleague a few days on, ‘my‘ Clinical Psychologist, who was assigned to help me with the psychological aspect of pain management.

Her colleague had told her what I had said. The fact that she seemed dubious to my belief that I was now depressed didn’t bother me.  That’s just the way I came across, but if she took a look inside my head, or even just asked me a few questions, she would know.

For some reason (which I have forgotten now) the subject of my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) came up.  She immediately responded to me saying that “Borderline is not a mental illness” and is not even an illness.  She went on to say, “Borderline is simply a set of behaviours“.

By now there was steam rising from my head because I don’t believe these statements at all.  I admit that my BPD is probably the cause of the steam. I know only too well that people with BPD don’t like hearing such things, simply because we don’t see it as true reflection of who we really are.  It suggests though (rather loudly and firmly) that we are simply drama queens (and kings) and/or attention seekers.  We are apparently quite able to change our behaviours if we wanted to. It is simply that we don’t want to change.

I accept, although don’t agree, that some people don’t see personality disorders as mental illnesses.  I had clearly found one of those people in my Clinical Psychologist. Furthermore, some people think that people with BPD simply behave badly and that if we wanted to, we could change that behaviour. Again, my Clinical Psychologist’s view. And again, in most cases I don’t believe this to be true.

Back to the depression of which I believed I was currently suffering, she told me that ‘I didn’t want to get well‘. This was without any discussion to confirm my self-diagnosis let alone any talk of what I was or wasn’t doing to head towards wellness. Actually it was without any discussion at all.

I hadn’t said that I didn’t want to get well, and I didn’t feel that way at all. I don’t know exactly why she jumped to that conclusion, but she also said  the Occupational Therapist’s view (again, no discussion took place with him).

To give you the shortened version, that was the last day I saw my Clinical Psychologist.  I had always believed that I wasn’t able to be treated by a health professional who held those views and treated me that way. Unfortunately this time, it meant I would no longer be able to see anyone (including the Occupational Therapist) at the Pain Clinic (their rules). That’s okay.  It was a cost that I deemed worth paying. The loss involved is that I won’t be able to see my Pain Specialist (the doctor), whom I had found very helpful and accepting of all my health issues. Right now, he had sorted my medication but I’m not sure what I will do if I need help with that in the future. Maybe I’ll just have to move to another part of the country (that’s a joke!).

In looking back, the psychologist’s views of BPD had little place in the treatment of my chronic pain. It wasn’t the issue. But it was clear that she was stigmatising BPD sufferers and particularly me.

The issue of the day was depression, and it was clear to me that stigma of mental illness and specifically depression was a clear issue for both of these health professionals. They had both deemed me unwilling to work on the issues regarding chronic pain, because I had told them I was depressed.

I get that many people, and sadly health professionals hold very negative views about sufferers of BPD. I am used to that, although admit I hadn’t had to deal with such views myself. But I know it is not just BPD that comes into the firing line. All personality disorders are viewed with derision by some health professionals.  And even mood disorders can also be looked down by them.  It seemed that these two had negative views about depression.  That is a great shame considering that many people who suffer chronic pain also suffer from depression.

Am I alone with this? Have you been on the receiving end of stigma from health professionals, be it general health or mental health?  How have you handled it and what effect has it had on the overall treatment of your health issue? If it isn’t something you have experienced, how would you handle it if you came across such stigma?

© Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cate Reddell and A Canvas Of The Minds with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


18 thoughts on “Stigma Via Health Professionals

  1. I reported my therapist to my employee assistance program for tellling me to treat my bulimia by exercising more and eating less. Apparently she didn’t think I could be overweight and have that problem, despite what I was describing as exactly what bulimia consists of. I never went back to her so I have no clue if anything happened. I hate that this just adds to the fear of asking for help and actually getting it :/

    • Oh that would make me so mad. Having had an eating disorder myself I understand how damaging such comments and attitudes could be. I’m glad you made the complaint and I hope that they took your complaint seriously. You’re so right that such attitudes just add to the fear and difficulty of seeking help when we need it. It is a shame that such health professionals don’t understand that we are the ones who know best.

  2. I know this type of treatment happens a lot, yet I’m always shocked when I hear about it. I’m sorry you were not taken seriously by the people who should be listening to you the most!

    • Thanks Janet. I think I am like you, and actually I want to keep being shocked by such treatment. That will hopefully make sure that we talk about it and maybe in doing that, we can hope for some change.

  3. I had the privilege of consulting with a number of psychiatric professionals in Japan about a decade ago. Somehow things can be clearer when you view them through the lens of another culture…
    Anyway, long story short… I ended up thinking that much of the stigma about mental health problems is, indeed, carried by health care professionals.. Since then I have seen more evidence of this in the willingness of young people to “accept” and be more open about depression and bipolar, and the reluctance of young mental health professionals to see this as a step forward…

    • I suspect you might be right. I don’t mean to come down heavy on health professionals. I know some amazing ones. But sadly it does seem that health professionals as a whole aren’t doing enough in fighting stigma.

  4. I saw yet another replacement psychiatrist,a few days ago for depression. In the course of running through my history to bring him up to speed, I tentatively mentioned that I was currently being assessed for BPD (by another team). He told me that borderline isn’t a ‘real’ psychiatric condition and wasn’t medically treatable like heart disease or cancer. The psychologist assessing me for BPD, told me that my depression may not be an ‘actual’ depression and may just be part of the BPD experience. Either way, I left feeling less than.

    • That is so frustrating. It makes me so mad when I hear of cases like yours (and mine for that matter). They seem to forget that we are real. And that is what matters. when they tell us that BPD is not a real psychiatric condition and that our depression may not be real they forget that our experience of them IS real and we are suffering as a result. I’m wondering if you have any choice over who you see? I know in most cases we don’t have much choice. If not, I hope you can find a way to remember that in spite of what they say about labels of BPD and depression, that your experience is very real.

      • Thank you Cate. Your advice is spot on and something I really need to internalise and absorb. I don’t have a choice over whom I see, unless I pay to go privately but at this time that isn’t an option for me. I think the way forward is to give myself permission to select what I choose to take-away from my interactions with health professionals instead of believing that everything they say is the gospel truth.

        • That sounds like a good approach to take. I know it is hard to hold onto our own truths when someone like a doctor is telling us differently. I hope you can find a way to believe in you and hold onto what you believe. Good luck.

  5. The stigmatisation of mental illness, particularly, Borderline Personality Disorder within the medical community is really troubling.

    Online resources like this heinous article from a ‘dr.’ - – dissuade people with BPD from seeking help. Stigma propagated by the medical community is negligent, unprofessional and immoral.

    Thanks for this great read, through awareness hopefully we can stop things like this from happening.

    • Thanks for sharing that link. I’ve personally got to the point where I purposely stay away from such lines of thinking. That said, I read this one and like many such writings I didn’t think he actually said much, apart from to display horrendous stigma towards people with BPD, and for that matter addicts. I would encourage such people as me to stay well clear of Dr Lavender. We have as difficult a time without needing his thoughts. You’re quite right… heinous!
      That aside, I totally agree with you. Stigma like this from anyone is not what we need in what is a difficult journey through life, but the fact that it comes so readily from some medical professionals is indeed sad. We need support and not judgment.

  6. People aren’t half idiots at times. You’d think, given that they’re in a pain clinic, they’d understand that being in constant pain affects people’s moods and can cause depressive states. Makes me wonder if they got their qualifications out of a cereal box or off the internet. I’m sorry that the folks who should have been helping you turned out to be unhelpful.

  7. Sadly, it does happen a lot, which to me, feels nothing short of betrayal as I would think it is something that should come from a health professional.

    Clearly that is not the case and it just goes to show how deeply rooted the stigma is.

    Yes, I’ve had it happen to me and I have seen it happen to people close to me. It is maddening and angering. I’ve been on the receiving end of this from family doctors, especialists, a couple of psychologists and even a psychiatrist. Quite discouraging.

    On the other hand, I have also had doctors telling me my pain from fibro is not real and that I should see a psychiatrist instead because clearly I am just looking for attention.

    So, what gives?

    Sorry it happened to you. I know how awful it feels for me so I guess I can imagine how it must be for you as well

    • Yes, it does seem that we’re all in for a large dose of it. And those of us dealing with fibro get and extra special dose. I’m inclined to think that until health professionals get over themselves (gosh, did I say that?) we will all struggle to find acceptance within ourselves and others.

  8. Thanks Cate for your personal sharing about your experiences, particularly with professionals. Accompanying a person with respect, thoughtfulness and full attention is very important. More often the so called professionals themselves are not prepared well so as to respond realistically. it is a continued journey of learning, respecting, accompanying people in such a way that each one is helped to understand one’s nature and grow in self-care. As a person involved in the field of inner healing and counselling I may recommend to you the materials of Dr. Liz Miller from Edinberg who personally learned to handle her own personal experiences of Bipolar and other challenges that resulted from over-working and struggles. Today she is teaching other persons who have similar struggles like that of hers and offers many ways to handle and even to come out of it. I have also evolved a course material named as “Mood Design,” which has many insights from her contributions.

    Best wishes for your journey and may you have more strength that would further help you!

    • Thank you for your comments, Charles. Your thoughts help remind me that it must be a difficult task as a health professional to balance the requirements of the job with the needs of patients including the overall need to be accepted and not be stigmatised. I will have a look at the material you recommend. Thank you.

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