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So it is the start of mental health awareness week and I was recently talking to someone about a mental health-related issue that spans into other areas as well.

I’m going to focus on this issue as it pertains to hospitals and medical professionals, but I know it is not exclusive to the medical world; it is present everywhere.

The basic question I have for you: would you talk back to a superior who made an insensitive or prejudiced comment?

This question stems from a conversation regarding doctors making disparaging comments about patients with mental health issues, something I have seen first hand. I would guess that anyone who has worked in the medical field has observed some type of prejudice towards individuals with mental health issues, and anyone who has struggled with their mental health has likely been on the receiving end of this behavior at some point in their life.

I have been in the position of being the lowest on the proverbial totem pole–not even a med student, just a pre-med shadowing doctors–and observing rude and judgmental remarks about individuals with mental illness and especially individuals struggling with drug use. Most of the patients who came in with suicidal thoughts were viewed (and talked about) as an annoying burden, and no one with a history of mental illness or drug abuse was trusted to be honest.

Now I get it, to some extent, especially with drug users in an ER setting. Even in my short time shadowing it was exhausting and depressing to try and help people and watch them come back appearing to have not made an attempt to quit their habits. I had the benefit of a day job working with drug users in the city and I had seen a different side of people, but I understand how draining and easy it can be for a doctor to make generalizations and hold prejudices.

However, an individual with a physical complaint unrelated to their mental illness should be treated just as anyone else with that complaint would be treated, and not viewed to be exaggerating just because lithium is one of the drugs they are taking. Sadly, it seems that this is certainly not the case and there are many patient anecdotes to support just how ingrained this prejudice is within the medical profession.


So this comes back to my original question: do you speak up?

When I am there as a lowly doctor-shadowing pre-med I do not feel like I can say anything, but by not saying anything I feel complicit. It is as if everyone around me were making racist jokes and I didn’t say anything.

Even if I could speak up, what would I say? I have less experience, less knowledge, and less understanding (to some extent), so what could I say that those above me would listen to?

I have spoken to others in medical and other professions about experiencing this problem, and it appears to occur in all areas. While the damage done by these assumptions may not be as direct in other fields as it is in medicine, there is still a problem. It is easy to say that we need to challenge these prejudices (and it is much easier to do that when you are at the top of the ladder), but what are those of us who are just starting out to do?.

How can we challenge these prejudices without being labeled as “difficult”, “hostile”, or just “crazy” ourselves?