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When (mental) health professionals say dumb shit

Anyone who’s had experience with healthcare professionals for their mental health will probably know that despite their medical degree and/or extensive training in the field, they’re not exempt from making tactless, insensitive and often invalidating remarks.

In fact, sometimes, they can be downright stupid. I’ve had lots of comments over the years that have left me reeling with anger or in floods of tears. I’ve also had a few that have made me think ‘really?’  I stumbled across one such comment when flicking through an old journal last week, which has prompted me to retrieve this post from the depths of my drafts box and finish it off. So here we go. Dumb things said to my by mental health professionals:

“But you look better” [nurses, therapists, doctors]– *MENTAL* illness, not written-all-over-my-face-illness. I just find this infuriating. If I say I don’t feel well, the fact I might be wearing makeup or be dressed or don’t look pale or tired or can smile really should have nothing to do with it. I can feel awful without looking like shit, and I can feel good while looking awful.

“You’re young, you’ve your whole life ahead of you” [pretty much every general nurse, mental health nurse, paramedic, psychiatrist, I’ve met over the years]– My age has precisely zero to do with my mental health. Being young doesn’t mean I’m exempt from poor mental health, nor does it mean I can snap my fingers and magic myself better because I have ‘more time’. Being told this when depressed kinda makes me wanna scream ‘and that’s the fucking point’.

“Because you’re training to be a nurse I can tell you this: *detailed, graphic, upsetting and downright triggering description of how someone committed suicide on the ward I was on*” [my CPN]– This was unnecessary and unprofessional, and the fact I’m *going* to be (ie. haven’t actually started) training as a nurse, is irrelevant. I am your patient, not your colleague, so discussing suicide methods in detail is just inappropriate???

“You do realise you’ve had low mood for far longer than you should have at your age” [my outpatient psychiatrist from about 2012-2015]– Did everyone know age is now one of the diagnositic criteria in the DSM for depressive episodes? If you first started struggling with mental illness as a teenager, you have to be recovered by the time you’re 21!

“I’ve seen people with way worse problems than you and they just get on with it.” [outpatient psychiatrist 2012-2015] -I don’t think it’s fair to ever say someone has it worse, because true as it may be, everyone’s problems are their own. What upset me most though was that I was well aware that I had ‘nothing to complain about’, and a huge part of my guilt, and therefore depression, was that I felt I had no right to feel the way I did because I’d had a good life/nothing horrible or traumatic had ever happened to me, and I did have it easy growing up. Plus, telling someone with depression to ‘get on with it’ will never not be head-against-wall infuriating!

“You haven’t had anything traumatic happen to you so you have no reason to feel this bad.” [outpatient psychiatrist 2012-2015…She really did top the scale for most invalidating healthcare professional] – Trauma is a prerequisite for any and all mental illness apparently- not just for PTSD!

“Lots of people have bad days and they just deal with it.” [psychiatrist 2012-2015] Bad days ≠ depression/mental illness. Everyone has bad days, but not everyone is mentally ill. D’oh! And, sure, there is an element of having to ‘plod on’ when living with mental illness…but if I, or anyone, could just ‘deal with it’, you, my lovely invalidating friend, would be out of a job.

“You need to start thinking happy thoughts- if you dwell on negative things it’s no wonder you feel bad!” [outpatient psychiatrist 2012-2015, she was on a roll during this appointment…]– Ah yes, that well known cure for depression- positive thinking! Why didn’t I think of that before?

“You’re not depressed” [consultant psychiatrist during ward round, first admission, pre-bipolar diagnosis]– It was more the fact that a week later, he shouted at me for struggling to get dressed or out of bed and said “you’re supposed to be here to recover from this depression”. That would be the depression a week prior he told me I didn’t have…

“Calm down /get off the floor, you’re upsetting other patients” [a nurse during a panic attack, and the ward sister when alone in the windowless nurse’s station with the door closed…]– The first occasion I had literally just fallen to my knees in tears. While I was shouted at by the nurse to ‘get up’, the ‘upset patients’ came and draped me with a fluffy jacket just out of the tumble dryer. The second occasion there were no patients around. On both occasions I was literally just crying, and the fact I was upset too didn’t seem to matter. I just thought this was silly and unfair. I was in hospital, because I was supposedly unwell. Being in hospital, I was also around other people who were often highly distressed, upset and occasionally verbally aggressive and abusive. I wouldn’t have expected that they be told to calm down for upsetting me/other patients, because I knew they were unwell. Plus, snapping at someone to ‘calm down’ in the middle of an anxiety attack reallyyyy isn’t very helpful!

“Maybe you’ll grow out of it” [my fav nurse, as it happens, pre-bipolar diagnosis]– Maybe indeed. Maybe the past eight years have all just been a phase…

[A nurse after disclosing something difficult to another member of staff] “Have you been talking to any other patients?”– I’d been on the ward less than 24 hours, and hadn’t spoken a word to the patient she was referring to. I was- and still am to be honest- upset by this. It was something I’d struggled to talk about with anyone before, so to have a nurse make me feel disbelieved was discouraging. It was exactly the type of response I’d feared, which didn’t help.

“Lots of people have low mood, and they don’t self harm” [the ward sister, ironically, at the time I was self harm free and have been ever since]– and lots of people have low mood and do self harm. Lots of people have eating disorders and are underweight. Lots of people have eating disorders and aren’t underweight. Point?

“She was far sicker than you’ll ever be” [the ward sister telling me about someone who was doing well with their bipolar]– Being the sickest, of course, being ultimate goals!! I’m not sure what her point was, because it sounded like a dig/an insult moreso than something that was meant to be encouraging (if she could get well, so could I). It just felt like a really bizarre comment to make, and it was completely unnecessary- her point would have been just as valid without it. Living a stable life with bipolar is possible. There. That’s all she had to say??

“Bipolar is the celebrity illness, everyone has it!” [ward sister when asking me why I was struggling to accept my diagnosis]– this was just dumb…I really couldn’t care less what celebrities have or don’t have bipolar. Sharing an illness with Catherine Zeta Jones or Robbie Williams really doesn’t make it any easier to get out of bed if I’m low or make my thoughts stop racing if I’m high or make life with this illness any less hellish. It being a ‘celebrity illness’ glamourises it in my mind? It makes it sound ‘cool’, ‘edgy’ and somewhat desirable. The ‘everyone has it’ bit just made me feel like I was overreacting and was being stupid for finding it hard to come to terms with.

“It could be worse/it’s not big deal” [the ward sister/another nurse, usually when discussing my diagnosis]– Another one that infuriates me. I know damn well it could be worse, but telling me that doesn’t make me feel any better, or take away what I do have. In fact, it just makes me feel guilty, well-intentioned as they may have been. Sometimes I feel like healthcare professionals become desensitised to things because they see it day in, day out. So while something like bipolar or a heart condition or whatever might be ‘no big deal’ to a doctor or nurse who sees these conditions every day, to a patient with no experience of them it might be bloody terrifying. Just because a healthcare professional has seen worst case scenario, doesn’t mean they should downplay someone else’s very real fears and struggles.

[Psychiatrist on taking zopiclone daily] “Oh no no, if you need it, take it. Better addicted to it and sleeping than not taking it and not sleeping!” Of course. Because being addicted to sleeping pills is far less troublesome than putting up with a few nights bad sleep a week if I continued to just take it as and when. And it’s not like I’d build up a tolerance to it or anything. Like seriously? 

And finally, my personal favourite…

“Do you purge to ruin your teeth?” [the consultant psychiatrist back in 2012 when I was struggling with anxiety related purging]– Yes, yes I do. That’s exactly it. Excellent detective work there…For all the reasons in the world why I might have been engaging in eating disordered behaviour, this was what he came up with? Ok…

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**Unfortunately, I can’t remember every idiotic thing uttered by healthcare professionals, so this is an in comprehensive list- but I will no doubt have new gems to add to it in the future! 

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3 thoughts on “When (mental) health professionals say dumb shit

  1. Urghhhh..there’s enough here for a lifetime! (err, not that I mean that in an age-related way of course ; ))

    I have also had the ‘nothing traumatic happened to you so I don’t understand why you appear to be so bad…’ line – and it haunted me for years, until some other, more empathic and far more knowledgeable, professionals managed to help me feel more validated, and able finally to forgive myself and move on.

    But I would just say that – re the ‘you might grow out of it’ comment: I don’t know if at the time this was relevant (as I know you had your diagnosis changed a couple of times) – but certainly there is evidence to suggest that BPD/EUPD symptoms (whatever they call it nowadays…) is generally at its most intense in late adolescence/early twenties – with many people finding their moods and thoughts/feelings more manageable and less tormenting as they age. I’ve never been diganosed as such, but have certainly found as I’ve got older that my most intense feelings of hopelessness/pain/anxiety (and urges to s-h etc) have just died down – which fits with other people I know as well. I know it’s not always the case – but this might have been what your nurse was referring to, as she may well have seen it in practice with other people.

    And re zopiclone: you are very wise to be wary of the potential for tolerance and dependence in long term use, but I’ve had a psych who I very much trust, say the same to me – and I can see why: that they know I am aware of the risks – too much in fact – and this sometimes prevents me from taking it, resulting in too many days in a row with not enough sleep, and a subsequent slump in mood/functioning. So yes – use it with caution – and not every night – but sometimes acknowledge that it might be better to take it, and get the sleep you need. Sleep deprivation has a terrible effect on mood, anxiety and physical/psychological resilience – so sometimes it may be the most responsible action to take, to make sure you’re getting enough.

    Anyway – this was a great post, as always. Thank you.

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    1. Ahhh sorry you’ve had the same lines thrown at you- it’s incredibly frustrating. Like I said, the fact I was so aware the fact I had ‘no reason’ to be depressed just meant her comment reinforced that!
      I agree with the age related thing. I was never (formally/officially/finally) diagnosed with EUPD, but related to it a lot more at 18 than I do now, in terms of the self harm/hopelessness/suicidal ideation, and at the time, my moods were a lot less defined than they are now (the highs were only a few days at a time, and I had a lot of agitated episodes). Nurse was right with the self harm- I’ve felt less and less of a need to do it. I don’t hold it against her at all, and I do really value her opinion. This was before the mania/bipolar diagnosis and she’s since said the polar opposite ahhhh
      Thank you for the zopiclone advice- I have gotten better at taking it since the consultant told me off back in May for not taking it often enough (maybe once a week, if even, at that stage!). But you make a valid point!
      And thank you, glad you enjoyed it 🙂 xx

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  2. Oh my god! What a load of bull shit. Good on you for keeping a sense of humour and writing about something that is very miserable in an entertaining way. Really made me think how awful it is that these people are in a position of care and influence of particularly vulnerable people. It’s amazing that so many “professionals” in this area even got their job. Irony… Xx

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