The Stigma in Our Health Care System
I was in the hospital for seven days this past March—and it never happened.
I’m 45 years old, and I live with schizophrenia. To be specific, I have schizoaffective disorder combined with clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder. I work very hard to stay as stable as I can. I take my medications despite a paranoia about pills being poison. I keep my appointments with my psychiatrist, my therapist and my general practitioner. On good days, I can drive and meet someone for coffee. On bad days, it is an accomplishment just to get dressed and feed myself. If I’m lucky, I have more good days than bad. If I’m not, I have very bad days.
I was having a bad day and one of my stronger delusions started to take over. I recognized that it was getting too bad for me to handle and my mom got me to the ER just in time for it to blow up into full psychosis. I took emergency medications to calm me down, and then I was admitted to the Behavioral Medicine Department.
This is where I disappear.
You see, the Behavioral Medicine Department (B-Med for short) is really a short-stay psychiatric lockdown ward. And you are invisible to the outside world when inside. No one—not even doctors—can call in or even know you’re there unless they have a code. It is an isolated bubble designed to keep patients calm and get them the specific treatment they need. It really does work, and I left a week later with my medications tweaked and my mind back under my control.
A few weeks later, I had an appointment with my general practitioner. He had no record of the medication change—which was strange. I mentioned that my anxiety was still up after the hospital stay, and he had no idea what I was talking about. He checked my patient records and all it said was “ER visit.”
I mentioned that my stay had been in B-Med and he just nodded. Psychiatric hospital stays, he said, are never put in general patient records. B-Med records are separate from all other medical records, and he had no access. Further, he wasn’t allowed to add anything about it to his record, even though we were talking about it in our visit.
Let’s think about that for a moment: My general practitioner has no access to my psychiatric treatment records. During Mental Health Month, there’s always a lot of talk about breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness. Well, it seems like we’ve still got a long way to go. If doctors can’t even talk about mental illness to other doctors, how are we going to talk about it in public? How are we ever going to get integrated health care if my hospital visit essentially never happened?
I have schizophrenia. I want all my health care providers to know that. And so should anyone else with a mental illness.
Kathryn van Roosendaal is a former newspaper and magazine writer and editor. She now maintains a blog and a Facebook page dedicated to breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing her own experiences of living with schizophrenia and depression. She can be found at schizophreniaandmore.blogspot.com and www.facebook.com/SchizophreniaandMore.