By Marvin Ross
One of the major problems that people with mental illness face is discrimination from other medical professionals. That has been a theme I’ve written about for years and is likely a major contributing factor for those with mental illness having significantly shortened lives. The anti-psychiatry types would have us believe shortened longevity is the result of taking psychiatric medication even when studies show those who are treated with anti-psychotics live longer.
I did not think that anything could top the case I’ve always used from years ago but it has been surpassed although, fortunately, without death. The first case I became aware of happened years ago in the hospital tasked with providing psychiatric care in my own city of Hamilton, Ontario. A man with schizophrenia was sent to the ER because his family doctor diagnosed him with pneumonia. Emergency facilities at this hospital have two separate components – one for medical and one for psychiatric. The hospital knew the man had schizophrenia because he was a volunteer and they knew that his address was a group home for the mentally ill so they decided he needed to be processed through psychiatry rather than medicine despite being told the reason for his being there.
While waiting for service, he complained about lack of breath and that he was having difficulty breathing but he was given a paper bag to breathe into since it was decided he was having a panic attack. Shortly after that, he arrested and died in the waiting area. The hospital was, of course, sued successfully and they changed their triage protocols as a result. Little consolation to the man who died but at least they smartened up.
Before talking about the case that tops that, there is another tragic and preventable death in the same city but where the bias was towards mental illness and away from a medical problem. A young university student planning on going into medicine came out of a downtown Mosque one evening with his family. He spotted two young thugs harassing an old man and he went to the aid of the old man and chased the thugs. One of them turned around and shot the rescuer. When the paramedics arrived, they detected a small entry wound in his abdomen, little blood and decided he had been shot with a pellet or BB gun. It was a 22 and it severed two internal arteries.
The paramedics took there time and tried to convince the young man that he was alright even though he was demonstrating considerable distress. the distress they dismissed as his acting. He began flailing and they told him to stop and after wasting a half hour, they dragged him into the ambulance and restrained him. They decided to take him to the Emergency psychiatry unit rather than to the trauma centre which was much closer. He died by the time they got to the hospital, the paramedics were fired and are now being tried for neglecting to provide the necessities of life.
The example that takes the cake in discrimination towards those with mental illness seeking medical help for non psychiatric problems occurred in suburban Toronto and the video made the rounds on the internet. Once the hospital staff learned the man had bipolar disorder, they falsely made the assumption that there was nothing physically wrong with him and turfed him from the ER.
He was there to complain about severe pains in his legs but no one believed him. The pain was so bad that he could barely walk and so was forced to literally crawl on his hands and knees out the door. His progress was coached by a nurse who stood by him and watched his slow agonizing crawl out the front door of the hospital. When he was finally able to get medical help, it turned out that he was suffering from Guillain-Barré Syndrome.
This all took place in 2018 but only came to light recently because he was trying to get the video of his struggle to leave. The hospital claims they fired the nurse but they do not say if her actions were reported to her regulatory college for action. I suspect not and can only assume she working at another hospital.
This medical bias against those with psychiatric illnesses was just written about in the Globe and Mail newspaper based in Toronto. Thomas Ungar is psychiatrist-in-chief at St. Michael’s Hospital of Unity Health in Toronto and Louise Bradley is president and CEO of the Mental Health Commission of Canada. They stated that:
Too often, having a mental illness stamped in your file is like having it tattooed on your forehead. It biases medical professionals – who, after all, are only human – and overshadows valid and serious physical symptoms, allowing them to be dismissed as nothing more than a figment of your diagnosis.
Structural stigma – how institutional rules, policies and practices unjustifiably and arbitrarily limit the rights of people with mental illnesses – plays on this unconscious bias. It flourishes in darkened corners and it hides in plain sight. To the untrained eye it’s invisible, but the threat it poses is no less real.
The solution to this problem, they say is that “We need to measure and monitor the barriers, big and small, that put treating mental illness at a perpetual disadvantage. If we can get them on a mandatory quality performance dashboard, or easy to see report card, a red-light indicator will scream out for attention. It’s the only way we can halt structural stigma in its tracks.”
So, next time you hear someone say psych meds kill off psychiatric patients, you can point out that they are being killed off by biased and discriminating physicians who should no better but don’t.
And if you received this twice, my apologies. I should not try to schedule something when I’m tired.