News & Resources

Misdiagnosis and Mistreatment of Mental Illness

The cruel reality of major depression and bipolar disorder has never been more fully exposed than with the tragic death of comedic genius and icon Robin Williams. The fact that he himself could not find the happiness that he gave to so many millions speaks to the terrible suffering mental illness can cause. Unlike many, Williams was aware of his demons and open about his struggle. Even then, he lost his final battle. What about the people who have not been diagnosed, or have been misdiagnosed? How will they fight their battles?

Your Denver medical malpractice attorney points to sobering statistics. A full 69% of people with bipolar disorder are initially misdiagnosed, and one-third of those patients remain misdiagnosed for ten or more years. On average, patients remain misdiagnosed for 5.7 to 7.5 years. The effects of misdiagnosis can be life-threatening. If diagnosed with unipolar depression while truly suffering from bipolar depression, being treated with anti-depressants can cause hypomania or an even worse, life-threatening mania. Incorrect treatment of mental disorders and delay ineffective treatment can lead to a worsening of mental health, and may even lead to suicide attempts–and successes.

There are multiple reasons for the high rate of misdiagnosis of mental disorders. Often times co-occurring disorders such as substance abuse and addiction complicate diagnosis and treatment. People suffering from depression or schizophrenia sometimes try to “self-medicate” with alcohol or illegal drugs such as cocaine or heroin. Robin Williams made this aspect of his struggle with depression public as well. He had several stints in rehab and talked openly about his abuse of cocaine early in his career. Williams, unlike many people with mental health disorders, was aware that his substance abuse was due to his depression. For people that are not yet diagnosed or aware, the best way to distinguish between substance abuse as the issue and substance abuse as the symptom is a thorough patient history and screening undertaken by a conscientious physician.

Your Denver medical malpractice attorney points out that another reason for the frequent misdiagnosis of mental illness is the current institutional bias to label a disorder and then medicate it, sometimes with multiple medications. Not only can the rush to label lead to misdiagnosis, but it can also result in dangerous drug interactions or medications acting at cross-purposes. In other cases, a rush to label often misses underlying physical disorders that cause symptoms similar to mental disorders. For example, hypothyroidism has been mistaken for bipolar disorder because the disease causes extremely similar symptoms. If the screening physician does not do a full thyroid panel, a patient could end up being treated for years for a mental disorder they do not have, and not being treated for the physical disease they do have. Imbalances in hormones and blood sugar can also cause symptoms similar to those of mental disorders; if a treating physician does not thoroughly screen for these, the proper diagnosis and treatment may be missed.

Better public awareness and new diagnostic tools such as brain scans are making progress in the struggle to understand, diagnose, and correctly treat mental illness. If you or a loved one has been misdiagnosed or received improper care for the treatment of a mental health disorder, contact Jordan Levine at The Levine Law Firm.

Related Post