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How to Identify and Combat Medical Gaslighting

Written By: Hana Gabrielle Bidon

Photo by Accuray on Unsplash

Warning: This article will discuss topics including involuntary hospitalization, mental illnesses, eating disorders, medical trauma, ableism, and complex trauma that may be triggering for some individuals. Please read at your own discretion.

One day, I confided to one of my former therapists about my negative experiences with medical professionals in my life.

After being involuntarily hospitalized at the Yale New Haven Hospital for the first time in January 2018, I was at an outpatient treatment facility nearby to treat my anxiety and depression. I walked in with a social worker who introduced herself and the program. Without thinking much about what I was going to say, I introduced myself and disclosed that I have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which is a developmental disability that affects someone’s communication, attention, executive functioning, fine motor skills, and restricted interests. Without examining me further, she stated that I was not autistic because I was highly intelligent. I looked at her flabbergasted and reluctantly returned to group therapy for the outpatient program. Fortunately, my mother pulled me out of that treatment facility as soon as possible to let me return to college at Cornell University shortly after.

Once I went back to Cornell University for my second semester as a sophomore, I was paired up with an unhelpful therapist at Cornell Health. She dismissed my complaints about my first relationship and did not consider my circumstances with one of the scholarships that I received through the university. Though I attempted switching therapists within Cornell Health, it was impossible to do so. At one of the sessions, she informed me to get a therapist who specializes in autism.

Shortly after, I was involuntarily hospitalized at the Cayuga Medical Center and received a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects someone’s executive functioning, attention span, and ability to manage impulsive behaviors. For the record, I have the combined type of ADHD, which includes inattentive and hyperactive symptoms. Unfortunately, some medical professionals at the Cayuga Medical Center, Cornell Health, and Ithaca have not taken my ADHD seriously; my psychiatrist at the time refused to screen me for ADHD and devise an effective treatment plan for my ADHD medication, only relying on the medication from the Cayuga Medical Center.

Furthermore, she did not listen to my complaints about the side effects of the medications I was taking and refused to help me when I relapsed into a binge eating disorder from 2020 to 2021. When I was trying to devise a treatment plan for my binge eating disorder, she informed me to go to Cornell Health and left me to get therapy from someone who specializes in eating disorders.

Feeling frustrated, I dumped my psychiatrist and instead went to Cornell Health to figure out a plan. Miraculously, I received amazing treatment from a nutritionist and therapist who specializes in eating disorders at Cornell Health within the first two months of my last semester as a senior. After three months of treatment at Cornell Health, I fully recovered from binge eating disorder for the second time and have not relapsed since.

I received several misdiagnoses over the past six years by numerous doctors, psychiatrists, and other medical professionals, including but not limited to anxiety, depression, panic disorder, and adjustment disorder.

My therapist helped me realize these misdiagnoses and affirmed my lack of trust in medical professionals due to my repeated negative experiences within America’s healthcare system. Not only that, she informed me that I experienced medical trauma, more specifically, medical gaslighting. When I heard of this term, I reframed my negative past experiences in a healthcare setting as being medically gaslit over and over again, which was rather nightmarish. Not only did a social worker dismiss my official diagnosis of autism, but several doctors and psychiatrists also failed to treat my ADHD and eating disorders, which worsened my mental health and well-being. No wonder I underperformed academically as an undergraduate student at Cornell University and could not focus on my studies. People who are in a position of power to give me medical treatment failed me numerous times. Additionally, she noted that I have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) partially as a result of this medical trauma.

Gaslighting in a clinical setting can have serious consequences for patients, such as recurring emotional and mental distress. The October 2022 SHE Media Medical Gaslighting survey reported that 72 percent of respondents experienced medical gaslighting, consisting of being dismissed and blamed by doctors in addition to being stereotyped and misunderstood by medical practitioners. Plus, 71 percent of the respondents were informed by a medical professional that they were making up or imagining their symptoms. Due to maltreatment and medical gaslighting, 31 percent of the people surveyed discussed their experiences with a therapist or stopped seeking treatment for the medical condition entirely.

Medical gaslighting disproportionately affects marginalized communities, such as women and people of color. Throughout history, medicine has discriminated against women and trivialized their concerns as mere complaints and female hysteria. Up until 1952, hysteria was a common diagnosis for women deemed too emotional, with symptoms such as anxiety, insomnia, nervousness, and irritability. Currently, women’s health concerns are generally still blamed on their hormones and imaginations. Multiple research studies have also suggested that compared to men, women are more likely to be misdiagnosed, twice as likely to receive a mental health diagnosis, and more likely to wait longer to receive pain medication while experiencing severe levels of distress. Furthermore, medical gaslighting unfairly impacts people of color. A 2019 study from The American Journal of Emergency Medicine reported that compared to white patients, black patients in the United States were “40 percent less likely to receive medication for acute pain and 34 percent less likely to be prescribed opioids.” Karen Lutfey Spencer, a researcher studying medical decision-making at the University of Colorado, noted that women, especially women of color, are treated and diagnosed differently by medical professionals compared to men, even when they have the exact same medical conditions.

How can we identify signs of medical gaslighting? As previously mentioned, some indicators include being stereotyped based on social identities (e.g., race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), being dismissed and blamed by medical practitioners, and being refused a treatment plan for medical conditions, such as ADHD and PTSD. An example of a common stereotype is that Black patients are less likely to experience pain than patients from other races. A 2016 study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States (PNAS) reported that approximately half of the white medical students and residents held false beliefs about the biological differences between white and Black people, such as Black people having less sensitive nerve endings and thicker skin. Additionally, they made less effective treatment recommendations for their Black patients.

To combat medical gaslighting, here are some effective strategies. As the expert on your own body and mind, trust your gut and advocate for yourself. If you experience medical gaslighting, you should vocally push back against the medical practitioner and be persistent with your health concerns. If you feel a medical professional, such as a primary care doctor or psychiatrist, is dismissing their symptoms, please find another provider. Additionally, seek a second opinion or ask to be referred to a specialist. Ultimately, you are a consumer who deserves the best quality healthcare and to be treated with dignity and respect.

Medical gaslighting is a serious issue and can have dire consequences in the long run for patients, especially for those from underrepresented communities, including but not limited to gender minorities, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. If you encounter a medical professional who dismisses your symptoms or stereotypes based on a social identity, such as gender, please switch health providers to save you money and emotional pain. Everyone should feel heard and understood in healthcare, and we need to proactively take measures to combat gaslighting when we encounter it.

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Nov 30, 2023


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