Questions for our doctors

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Why we need to play an active role in our own recovery

By Clare Isabel Evans

Over ten years ago, a woman I know, who we shall call Lisa, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Upon receiving this diagnosis, Lisa was prescribed medication which was increased dramatically over time. According to Lisa there was a point where she had to consume fifteen different tablets every day.

More recently, during a stay in a private mental health clinic, Lisa started seeing a highly recommended psychiatrist. After assessing Lisa over a period of time, the new psychiatrist informed her that her original diagnosis of bipolar disorder was incorrect and she did not need to be on the plethora of medications she has always assumed were necessary to maintain her sanity.

Throughout her hospital stay, Lisa’s medications were gradually reduced from ten different meds to two. Lisa’s initial reaction to the medication reduction was stark fear. She truly believed she would descend into insanity without all her meds. After all, she had been encouraged by medical professionals to believe that she needed every one of those meds to stay sane. Going through the process of disengaging herself from her old diagnosis and excessive treatment regime was, for Lisa, traumatic in itself. ‘Bipolar’ had been a part of her identity for so long.

Lisa’s experience is an example of the effect of exclusion. Historically, people have accepted the notion that people with mental health issues are not capable of making informed decisions about their own recovery journey. Doctors with this view might not be inclined to fully explain the effects or side effects of medications. Even worse, the patient may feel disinclined to ask about alternative medications or therapies. If the patient themself is in the dark, no wonder different doctors may make different diagnoses.

The Real Lisa

Despite her mental health issues and her history of misdiagnosis and over medication, Lisa has been, and is to this day, very much a contributing member of society.

Along with being a bright, personable and intelligent individual, Lisa has successfully raised seven children. As a mother of seven she has been the primary caregiver and household manager while her husband has been the breadwinner. Lisa married her husband at a young age and their marriage is still firmly intact.

Lisa is now a grandmother and she is actively involved in the lives of her children and grandchildren. She is a very talented person and I have seen the beautiful artworks she can create, although where she finds the time in her busy life I have no idea.

People with mental health issues need to overcome the feeling of intimidation they might have when seeing a psychiatrist or GP. Some doctors today do take a more inclusive approach, openly discussing options and encouraging people to actively think about these options and ask questions.

Become involved

Ultimately, however, it is up to us to make sure that we play an active role in our recovery. We should endeavour to find out all the pros and cons of any new treatment being prescribed. This can be achieved through the simple act of handing your practitioner a list of questions and asking them to go through them with you.

The following list includes the questions that I like to ask about any new medication I am prescribed to treat either physical or mental health symptoms. This list is certainly not exhaustive, nor is every question relevant to everyone, but it provides an example.

It will be worth while. Since her medication was changed, Lisa reports that both her her physical and mental health have improved.

Questions Clare asks:

– How long will it take for this medica­tion to alleviate my symptoms? When should I notice a difference?

– What side effects might I experience while taking this medication?

– Might this medication affect my abil­ity to drive a car?

– If I were to suddenly stop taking this medication would I experience any negative physical or mental effects? For instance, if I were to go away for a long weekend and forgot to take my medication with me. Would this be a problem?

– How might this medication interact with other medications I am currently taking?

– Will this medication change how alcohol affects me? Would it be advis­able for me to avoid alcohol while on this medication?

Why not make up your own list of questions? Discuss it with your sup­port worker.

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