Anna heard whispers of the 4th of July fireworks. She went out to throw her garbage, hoping to catch a glimpse of the fanfare from the street.

Fireworks brought back memories of her childhood. A childhood of watching the grand fireworks on the Willamette river when she was growing up in Oregon. Her narcissistic mother always lurking in the background to trim away any excess fun she and her sister were having.

She marched to the garbage dump outside and heaved her biweekly trash collection into the dump. Wary and aware of the many eyes looking at her. Kids with intrigue tainted by the fear that their parents had sown in them. Adults with disgust that was hard to smear even if they wanted to.

She walked back to her driveway and lingered there, craning her neck to catch whatever she could the fireworks. Her neighbors saw her, but none of them waved her over.

She did not cross the street to where they were assembled for the best possible view of the city fireworks because she had seen her neighbors cross over to the other side of the road when they approached the vicinity of her home. She knew that they thought it was ominous to walk on the side of the weird woman’s house.

After she came inside reluctantly and gave the crisis center a call, she narrated this scenario to me. I felt her deep sadness seep in through the phone line. Although I was at a loss for words to comfort her, I didn’t need to say anything. I simply had to listen and be there for her.

 (Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash)
(Misdiagnosis of Mental Illness (Photo by Kinga Cichewicz on Unsplash)

I remembered how I had sided with the popular girls in middle school, how I had ignored the “strange” girls for my protection and survival, never for once thinking about how these girls might be feeling to be cornered and ridiculed.

Anna sounded open, kind, and wise. She lived on her own, having divorced her husband recently. She was getting to know herself better and moving through life as best as she could.

After talking about her day and her plans for the next day, Anna told me about her misdiagnosis. Thirty years ago, she told her psychiatrist that she might be having multiple personality disorder. She had done her research and was adequately self-aware of her psych and behaviors.

But the psychiatrist thought otherwise. He kept treating her for schizophrenia. She raised this with her husband, but he thought the psychiatrist knew the best course of action.

Since she had witnessed zero improvements in her condition after years of treatment, she changed her psychiatrist with a discouraging husband by her side. Changing psychiatrists wasn’t an easy task. She had to get on the waiting list for subsidized mental healthcare and move up the line for months and months.

The swapping of mental health professionals went on for too many years until she landed on her angel therapist, Kiara. Kiara, Anna said, was God-sent. “But I don’t know why in the world God took so long to send her,” she rightfully lamented. Someone that finally listened to Anna and took her self-diagnosis seriously. From then on, Anna slowly healed.

But sadly, Anna lost three decades of her life to a misdiagnosis of mental illness. Even when she had a hunch on what was going on with her.

“I’m 60 now. I lost the best years of my life for a disorder that my doctors couldn’t diagnose. I don’t really have many years left to look forward to. I’ll probably be stuck with my vicious neighbors for the rest of my life,” she managed a knowing chuckle. “But I share this story as a cautionary tale for others, and maybe you can help spread the word,” she was quick to add before she bid goodbye that day.

Patients lose their potential to lead optimal lives due to misdiagnosed mental illnesses. The misdiagnosis makes them confused and helpless. When their condition is not improving, no matter how much time, money, and effort are invested, misdiagnosed, patients feel hopeless.

According to a report published by the National Institutes of Health, misdiagnosis rates are 65.9% for major depressive disorder, 92.7% for bipolar disorder, 85.8% for panic disorder, 71.0% for generalized anxiety disorder, and 97.8% for social anxiety disorder. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, borderline personality disorders are one of the most commonly misdiagnosed mental conditions.

Misdiagnosis of mental health can happen due to various reasons. Mental healthcare professionals are dealing with the mind, an abstract concept altogether, when diagnosing a patient. Psychiatrists have to go by the information that patients disclose or not. When patients have more than one condition, the diagnosis becomes even more difficult.

Regardless of the cause of a false mental health diagnosis, the misdiagnosis rates are too way high to ignore. We need thoughtful action to remedy the situation.

nView Health is one company that is trying to make a difference. Jim Szyperski, the CEO of nView, and his team are on a mission to improve the accuracy of mental health diagnosis through the use of its digital screening and assessment tools. The company’s flagship product, the Mini International Neuropsychiatric Interview, the M.I.N.I., has been used by clinical and academic research organizations for more than 25 years to help researchers screen for disorders among study candidates. In 2020, the company took aim at healthcare providers who started using their tools to more accurately identify mental health disorders in their patients. Hundreds of physicians are now able to evaluate patients for virtually all mental health disorders from one assessment tool instead of having to predetermine the disorder and then administering the proper screen. By being able to evaluate the patient more completely, the chances of getting the diagnosis right on the first try increase.

I have fulfilled my promise to Anna now. Can you help spread the word and raise awareness about the misdiagnosis of mental illness?