Jan 24, 2023, 5:00 am UTC
Medical gaslighting is real - and here’s how to fight it
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Dena Gassner, who lives in Long Island, NY, has a history of being dismissed by doctors. Before her autism diagnosis in 1998, Gassner was misdiagnosed as bipolar, leading to years of mistreatment and medical trauma.
"I was just a disaster," Gassner says, describing the five-year period of her life when she was switched from one antidepressant to the next. These experiences slowly eroded Gassner's trust in the medical system and had a ripple effect on every other aspect of her life.
"It really negatively impacted my relationship with my daughter," she says. "She was in middle school at this time, and can you imagine anything worse than your mom being that emotionally unpredictable while you're so heightened to social needs?"
Google searches for the term "gaslighting"
Data source: Google Trends
Experts say this experience of having one's symptoms dismissed by a healthcare professional, also known as "medical gaslighting," is quite common. Research suggests that it takes women longer than men to receive a diagnosis, and the risk of misdiagnosis increases further for conditions that predominantly affect the female body or present differently in females, such as autism. Medical gaslighting may be partly to blame.
"If it's not something life-threatening that needs to be addressed immediately, women are told it's just something they're supposed to live with," says Kathryn Schubert, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Society of Women's Health Research.
Despite how often women experience medical gaslighting, spotting the signs and responding to them can be tricky. Here, we dive into the roots of medical gaslighting and offer tangible advice that will help you stand up against it.
A YouGov survey, in the United Kingdom, about women’s experiences seeking help for mental health challenges revealed that medical gaslighting is common:
- 33% of women were asked if they were “overthinking things.”
- 20% were asked if they were on their period, and told their mental health challenges could be hormonal.
- 22% feared being seen as “attention-seeking.”
What is medical gaslighting?
The term “medical gaslighting” is used to describe a situation in which patients with hidden, complex, or stigmatized symptoms, particularly women and other racial and gender minorities, are dismissed, and their experiences — of and within healthcare — are minimized or invalidated.
Chloe Bird, Director of the Center for Health Equity Research at Tufts Medical Center in Boston, says medical gaslighting is usually the result of unconscious biases and knowledge gaps in clinical care rather than conscious bias or malintent on the part of healthcare providers.
According to Schubert, the roots of medical gaslighting run deep and can be traced back to the history of gender bias in medicine. The female body has been historically excluded from research, so much so that despite the women's health movement in the 1960s, many aspects of women's mental and physical health remain shrouded in mystery even today. These disparities widen with race, income, disability, sexual orientation, and other factors.
“If it’s not something life-threatening that needs to be addressed immediately, women are told it’s just something they’re supposed to live with.”
—Kathryn Schubert, president & CEO, Society of Women’s Health Research
How do you spot medical gaslighting?
Medical gaslighting is so common that 71% of people surveyed in the 2022 SHE Media Medical Gaslighting survey said their medical practitioner told them their symptoms were imagined.
Here’s how to recognize the signs:
- Your requests for additional tests are repeatedly ignored.
- You’re discouraged from doing research on your condition or to consult another expert for a second opinion.
- Your concerns are chalked up to hypochondria or imagination.
- You’re not given access to your medical records when requested.
- Your health practitioner doesn’t actively listen to you or ask follow-up questions.
- You feel talked down to, and your concerns are not given any weight in the conversation.
- You begin to question the reality or severity of your experiences after seeing the doctor.
How to respond to medical gaslighting — and are there any legal protections in place?
Whether it is intentional or not, medical gaslighting takes a heavy mental and physical toll on women’s bodies and delays necessary care. It can also lead to missed or incorrect diagnosis, with further medical complications down the line.
If conversations with your healthcare provider leave you feeling drained, frustrated, or shut down, or questioning your perceptions, take these steps to regain your power:
Take space from the situation: Gaslighting can be draining and overwhelming. It’s important to remove yourself from the situation and take space to process the experience before you choose to take action. This will allow you to come up with a plan for standing up against medical gaslighting that works best for you.
Voice your concerns: It’s key to talk to your healthcare providers respectfully and proactively about their dismissal of your medical concerns. Using assertive language and clearly communicating your thoughts, beliefs, and needs will help minimize conflict.
Collect evidence: Everyone deserves to be treated by their healthcare providers with respect and dignity. If the gaslighting continues, it’s important not to tolerate or ignore it. Collecting evidence, such as taking detailed notes of your conversations with date and time stamps or creating a paper trail by sending emails of what was discussed and when, will allow you to advocate for yourself.
Involve others in power: While there are no specific laws protecting patients from medical gaslighting, it is connected to negligence and manipulation and can be reported to a hospital’s patient advocacy department. You can also reach out to the Federation of State Medical Boards to report a doctor for misconduct. Medical boards are focused on protecting patient interests and have the power to investigate complaints, hold hearings, and even revoke or suspend medical licenses.
Seek support: Medical gaslighting can erode your mental health and lead you to mistrust the medical system. As a result, it’s important to seek emotional support from friends and family members or see an expert who can help you process medical trauma. Treating yourself with compassion and care is also important.
How to protect yourself against medical gaslighting?
Medical gaslighting is insidious, and it's about time women's experiences are believed and given the attention they deserve. Dismantling this painful legacy requires further research on women's health conditions and training clinicians on implicit bias.
In the meantime, empowering women to advocate for themselves in clinical settings can help. For starters, this could mean:
- Writing down your symptoms before your appointment.
- Taking notes during your visit.
- Asking your provider questions.
- Bringing along a friend or family member for support.
- Getting a second opinion, if possible, or switching providers.
- Joining a community or support group where you can openly discuss your experiences with others.
- Understanding your family medical history.
Get additional tips in our Q&A on medical gaslighting with sociologist Chloe Bird.
A word from wmnHealth
Medical gaslighting is an unfortunate reality for countless women. If you or someone you love is emotionally impacted by it, please know your experiences are valid, and there’s no shame in seeking help from a mental health professional.