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Dangers of Misdiagnosing Mental Illness While Abusing Drugs

Mental illness is a leading cause of disability in Canada, with 1 in 2 Canadians having (or have had) some form of mental illness by the time they reach their 40s.

Unfortunately, mental illness misdiagnoses are also disturbingly common, hindering people struggling with clinical depression, bipolar disorder, and other types of psychiatric problems from achieving healing and wellness. 

In this article, we’ll discuss the prevalence of misdiagnosed mental illness, why it happens, and the heartbreaking effects it has on someone struggling with drug abuse

People Wait 13 Years for Correct Bipolar Disorder Diagnosis

A 2012 survey by the Guardian reveals that individuals with bipolar disorder had to wait, on average, 13.2 years before they received a correct diagnosis. Out of 706 respondents surveyed, only 15% received a prompt diagnosis, while 85% experienced a diagnostic delay and potentially mental illness misdiagnosis, spending years getting treatment for the wrong prognosis. 

The majority of the participants were erroneously told they had depression and reportedly felt that their symptoms got worse after being prescribed medications, such as antidepressants and sleeping aids, which were incompatible to their actual disorder.

“A delay of this length has a significant impact for individuals and families, with sometimes devastating consequences, as bipolar has the highest rate of suicide of any psychiatric illness,” Suzanne Hudson, the chief executive of Bipolar UK, told the Guardian. Her organization conducted the research in collaboration with the Royal College of Physicians and Bipolar Scotland to raise awareness on the pervasiveness of delayed diagnosis for mental health disorders. 

Aside from bipolar disorder, other commonly misdiagnosed mental illnesses include depression, schizophrenia, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

A woman stressed out

The Negative Impact of Misdiagnosed Mental Illness

A misdiagnosed mental illness can trigger a cascade of adverse consequences, impeding the affected individual’s quality of life and endangering their safety. The following are some negative effects of misdiagnosed mental illness:

Inaccurate Treatment Equals Ineffective Treatment

A mental health misdiagnosis will inevitably result in an incorrect treatment strategy. In some cases, it may have no effect at all. But in a worst-case scenario, wrong treatment plans can produce devastating drug side effects, which may aggravate existing symptoms and eventually worsen the person’s mental illness. 

Feelings of Frustration

A patient with a misdiagnosed mental illness can end up feeling confused, frustrated, and deflated when they realize that the prescribed course of treatment doesn’t seem to work. They may develop negative thoughts that they are a failure or a hopeless case, which, when left unaddressed, can potentially lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as a dependency on alcohol and drugs, or worse, self-harm and suicide. 

A man in pain

Heightened Risk to Self-Medicate with Substances

Mental health problems and substance use disorders are closely related. The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health reports that at least 20% of people with a mental illness have a co-occurring substance use problem. Similarly, over 15% of people with a substance use problem have a co-occurring mental illness. It’s primarily because drugs and mental health disorders share similar contributing factors, including genetic roots and environmental triggers. 

However, the issue of mental illness misdiagnosis and the failure to get access to adequate psychiatric treatment for these conditions also play a critical role in concurrent disorders. While some individuals become addicted to harmful substances out of societal pressure and curiosity, people with mental illness are at higher risk of falling into the traps of substance abuse out of a desire to feel better. In search of something to ease the pain or mask the symptoms of their mental disorders, they self-medicate by abusing alcohol and other illicit drugs. Cocaine, marijuana, and opioid drug addiction are prevalent because of their ability to bring you to a state of euphoria and offer an escape from the bleak reality of having a misdiagnosed mental illness. 

Self-Harm and Suicide

About 4,000 Canadians per year die by suicide—an average of almost 11 suicides a day, affecting people from all walks of life. 

Cases of self-harm and suicide are at staggering rates in people who have co-occurring mental illness and substance abuse disorders. Both are clear indications that an individual is in dire need of better coping skills. Many mental illnesses linked to self-harm and suicide include borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

Many influencing factors can trigger the urge to hurt oneself or take one’s own life, but it usually involves an overwhelming pain, anger, or frustration. Sadly, people with misdiagnosed mental illness are more vulnerable because the symptoms of their psychiatric condition are intensified due to substance abuse as well as a lack of treatment or out of their predicament’s hopelessness. 

Teen consulting with a psychiatrist

Why Are People Misdiagnosed?

Unlike other medical conditions, there are still limited tests and biomarkers available to identify specific mental health disorders definitively. Clinicians rely heavily on physical evaluation and patient history information provided during consultations. This includes:

  • Medical history
  • Family’s background, if any first-degree relatives have been diagnosed with drug and mental health problems
  • All symptoms experienced presently and in the past 
  • Observations from previous doctors
  • Sensitive information on trauma or abuse, which may have contributed to the condition

Finding out this information requires ample time and a connection between the medical provider and the patient to tease out these specific details. Frequently, limited consultation time is not enough to achieve this, and patients may be hesitant to reveal everything during the initial meeting. For instance, the patient may not mention that he is in the habit of abusing alcohol or turning to drugs to reduce his symptoms, which is a piece of crucial information that could have resulted in a dual diagnosis treatment

Doctors may be inclined to offer a prognosis based on insufficient patient history, leading to misdiagnosed mental illness, especially if no follow-up appointment occurs, and there’s no chance to review and update the initial findings. 

Recovering From Mental Illness & Addiction

Freedom From Addiction offers an extensive range of treatment programs that delves into mental health problems, such as anger management and cognitive behavioural therapies, to improve their coping skills without turning to drugs or alcohol. 

If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from a misdiagnosed mental illness, please don’t hesitate to contact us. A member of our team will get back to you shortly.

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