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The Gendered Physician’s Prescription for My Mental Health

Here is an article by Rhea, a young woman who is surviving anxiety and depression.

Photograph by Adam Levey Source: http://www.mensjournal.com/magazine/when-to-say-no-to-your-doctor-20140919

Health is a holistic concept for which various aspects of life are taken into consideration including physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. A person’s environment and lifestyle also play a big role in determining their “health”.

Often symptoms of physical illness and mental illness are confused, which is bound to happen because our body operates as a whole-disturbance in one part may affect the other in ways we don’t know. Moreover, as we live in a society which is deeply patriarchal in nature, the stereotypes get trickled down into the medical profession as well, which at times may lead to a wrong diagnosis or the wrong treatment.

Being a woman who is struggling through depression and anxiety, I have had many instances when my physical health was severely affected due to my mental health and vice versa, during which my gender also played a major role in deciding the type of treatment I would be given.

There came a time when I felt way more depressed than ever, to the point where I was facing fainting spells too. I felt weak. Since I have a habit of reading a lot and that too about health, I recalled that somewhere I had read that a lack of nutrition can cause depressive episodes. I did my research again but couldn’t find enough data, there were contradicting studies on the topic. I nevertheless used my common sense and realized I have not been eating very well and that apart from depression, any deficiency can cause fainting spells and mood swings. Moreover, previously I had suffered from anemia (which is very common in women in India) so I decided to get my tests done.

Source: http://www.usbloodprogram.com/2013/01/03/who-would-of-knew/

On getting myself tested, it came to my notice that my hemoglobin and calcium were low. When I went to the doctor for supplements, he told me “this level of hemoglobin is okay for women”. My Hb level had reached 10 g/dl, normal levels are 13 g/dl (for women it’s also considered as 12 sometimes). It didn’t put me in the severe category but did make me deficient. I knew I had to improve my food intake but to get my hemoglobin to normal I needed iron supplements but my doctor didn’t listen. I had been facing shortage of breath and rapid heart-beat as well, which are symptoms of anemia as well as anxiety, even on explaining this, my doctor told me not to worry and the level is normal. I decided to go to another doctor, who understood me and prescribed me supplements for three months. The doctor was a lady and discussed with me how anemia is a big problem in Indian women and I need to take care of myself.

There is a reason I advocate that nutrition can be a major cause of aggravating or even triggering one’s mental illness. For example, symptoms common to various types of anemia are, rapid heart rate, fatigue, dizziness, light-headedness, and weakness. These symptoms are also experienced during a panic attack or a depressive episode. So, if someone is going through depression, certain deficiencies can aggravate the symptoms. If these deficiencies are not taken care of, they may lead to major health crisis as well.

In another incident, I had severe migraine. Migraine is pretty common for me as I have rhino-sinusitis, which is an allergy of dust. Due to my condition I need to take proper precautions on a day to day basis. One of the precautions is to avoid polluted areas and too much dust, and if I am exposed to that then I need to adopt certain other measures like covering my mouth, drinking warm water, taking regular steam and increase my vitamin C intake (it helps in increasing immunity and is found in citrus foods like lemon, orange, etc.). Due to my field of study and work (which is social work) I have to visit areas which may be extremely polluted, sometimes I am not able to take care of myself after that. Most of the times I am not able to take care not because I don’t want to but my anxiety and depression drains me out, I don’t feel like performing those small health rituals which I used to include in my daily habits.

I am already not able to get up from bed in the morning, add sinus congestion to that and it feels like I am paralyzed. But, the fighter in me doesn’t like her life to be that dull, so whenever I face such an issue I make it a point to consult a professional.

Suffering from the same problem again I went to an ENT (I had to change my ENT as I had shifted to another city). The ENT started talking to me and listened to my problem, he asked me if I had any stress or anxiety, I told him I did. I feel sharing my complete medical record was a mistake on my part because even without analyzing me he told me “please don’t feel bad but you need to go to a psychiatrist and not come to an ENT, your problem is because of stress, you women think a lot and then develop stress, which causes such issues”. I was taken aback from his reply and left. I couldn’t comprehend anything. I had a major crisis and I felt that all this time it wasn’t an allergy but my mental state causing that. I went back home and slept, I kept sleeping for days and didn’t want to face the world. I felt weak and miserable. I couldn’t explain anything to anyone.

A week passed by and I told myself that this wasn’t me and this wasn’t my depression, I was sneezing like anything, I couldn’t even switch on the lights because of my migraine. I decided to go to another ENT specialist. This time before asking me questions about my life, the doctor heard my problem, inspected me, told me it’s an allergy and I shouldn’t worry. Then he asked me if I had any stress, I was afraid to tell him this time, but I did. He told me very sweetly to reduce my work load for a while as stress would add on to my symptoms. I went back home and started my medication, in a couple of days I started feeling better and happier.

Like I said a lot of times physical health and mental health gets mixed up. In my case, not just the physical and mental got mixed up but my gender also decided the course of treatment I would get. I feel angry not because my symptoms were confused, but I am angry because I was considered a “woman” before I was consider as a human. Just because anemia is high in women, doesn’t mean low hemoglobin should be acceptable. Just because mental illness is reported in women more (which is according to WHO and not the ENT I met), doesn’t mean there is a problem with women, it means the problem is with the society. Do you ever see what kind of barriers and societal expectations are put on the females? The amount of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse and violence that a woman goes through her lifetime.

We need to support each other and find out where the problem lies. Especially for someone working in the medical profession its necessary to have a sensitive and aware attitude towards any kind of societal constructs, be it gender, race, caste, sexuality, etc. Also, we need to be more empathetic towards people, we never know what harm we may cause.

The key to such issues lie in awareness and understanding. We are the best judge of ourselves, the doctor or anyone else may prescribe a certain course of actions but it’s on us whether we chose to follow them or not.

For anyone going through any kind of illness, it’s necessary to take care of yourself, eat properly and know what diet suits you. Be as aware of yourself as possible, read about your condition, don’t google it but go through journals and books which are relevant. In the end you are your own savior, help is always available but most of the time, you know what’s best for you.

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