Why a mental health misdiagnosis can be dangerous
Doctors are not all-knowing. Unfortunately, this is one of the first things individuals learn when they receive help for their mental illness. Even when patients arrive with each of their symptom’s carefully documented, the doctor’s first diagnosis – or even the second or third – might not stick.
Both misdiagnosis and missed diagnoses can make living with mental illness even more difficult than usual. Here are only a few ways an incorrect diagnosis can impact a patient’s life.
The prescribed medication may not solve the problem— and mayactually make things worse.
When patients receive the wrong diagnosis, they also tend to receive the wrong medication as well. For instance, a person with ADHD may receive medication designed for a person with bipolar disorder, or a person with bipolar might receive medication designed for a person with depression.
Sometimes, receiving the incorrect medication may “only” postpone the patient’s recovery by failing to treat the symptoms. Other times, however, this medication may react poorly with the patient’s actual illness. For instance, many patients with bipolar disorder are misdiagnosed with major depression and placed on antidepressants. Antidepressants tend to trigger manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder, increasing the severity of their illness rather than treating it.
Certain therapies may worsen the illness.
Receiving the incorrect medication isn’t the only thing misdiagnosed patients need to worry about — receiving incorrect therapy is a possibility, too. Although some forms of therapy can work well for different illnesses — for instance, cognitive behavioral therapy can be excellent for both depression and anxiety — other forms may exacerbate the patient’s illness.
For example, talk therapy is commonly helpful for individuals with anxiety, but may actually harm patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This is because individuals with OCD tend to obsess (unsurprisingly) about their past, their symptoms and their overall health. Encouraging patients with OCD to talk at length about their issues without providing any cognitive intervention can worsen their symptoms.
The patient may lose hope.
Many individuals with mental illness take a long time before they find the courage to finally seek treatment. When they finally do seek help, receiving an incorrect diagnosis — and thereby incorrect treatment — can make them feel like their efforts have been wasted.
They figure: Why bother taking medication or seeing a therapist if their symptoms aren’t getting better? Individuals who are misdiagnosed might give up on professional treatment, and instead live with severe and untreated symptoms.
The patient’s life remains on hold.
It isn’t easy to live with an untreated (or improperly treated) mental illness. Most illnesses are excellent at zapping a people’s productivity, making it difficult for them to succeed in work, school or even life at home. Individuals with untreated mental illness can also have difficulties maintaining healthy relationships. Thoughts of suicide are not uncommon.
The longer a person has to wait for proper treatment, the longer their life remains on hold— and in danger. Acquiring the proper diagnosis is essential to the patient’s recovery.
What makes mental illness so difficult to diagnose?
Why are misdiagnoses so common in mental illnesses? Several possibilities exist.
- First, individuals with mental illness tend to seek help for their destructive symptoms (e.g., depression that causes them to miss work) and not their productive symptoms (e.g., hypomania that allows them to work all night), giving therapists an incomplete view of their disorder.
- Second, individuals with mental illness often have several mental illnesses that co-occur, making it easy for clinicians to miss an illness or misattribute symptoms.
- Third, there are no tests that conclusively identify mental illness: Therapists must interview patients and use their own judgment rather than rely on diagnostic tests.
- Finally, patients are individuals. One person’s schizophrenia might not look like another person’s schizophrenia. If clinicians don’t take the time to learn about each patient’s symptoms and history, they’re liable to miss an illness and prolong the patient’s suffering.
At The Sovereign Health Group, we take a holistic and individualized approach to addiction and mental health treatment. Each patient is thoroughly examined by our trained team of clinicians so that we can accurately recognize —and treat — any co-occurring disorders. For more information, please contact our 24/7 helpline.
Written by Courtney Lopresti, M.S. neuroscience, Sovereign Health Group writer