Physical Illness as a Mental Disorder

As first published in the Sierra Times.com on June 21, 2007
I am a Registered Nurse with 29 years of experience. I’ve worked in the critical care units, emergency rooms, medical-to-surgical units, and even psychiatric units. Based on my direct observation and experience, many of the patients I’ve seen with so-called “mental illness” actually have underlying physical conditions that are easily treatable by medical, non-psychiatric, methods. Even “mental health” screening programs like TeenScreen routinely mis-diagnose genuine physical illnesses as “mental illness”.

“Anxiety disorder” is a good example of this. A certain list of symptoms prompt a psychiatrist to dish out Prozac, Xanax, Ativan, Valium, Zoloft, etc. No medical testing is necessary for a psychiatric diagnosis. Yet these symptoms – unknown fear, anxiety stomach, disorientation with the sensation that the body is going to die, sweating or clammy hands are also all symptoms of hypoglycemia, which simply means low blood sugar. A friend of mine, also a nurse, was sent home recently from work because she was “acting erratically” and didn’t seem to know where she was. After thorough medical testing, she found out that she has hypoglycemia. She had been suffering with that undetected condition on and off for 15 years. She had been through the whole regimen of expensive anti-anxiety medications in attempts to treat it. After the actual cause of her symptoms were located, she changed her eating habits, the symptoms did not return and no drugs were needed to handle this condition.

In my work, I have seen first hand the finding of heart valve prolapse, which had gone undetected for years in some women. This condition causes the sensation of rapid heartbeat, fluttering in the chest, sweating and anxiety. These are the symptoms of “panic attacks” and many of these women had been treated with anti-anxiety drugs. These are cases of actual undetected physical illness being passed off as “mental illness” for months or years, only to eventually find that there is a REAL cause and it can be treated and resolved. Half the battle today is the false advertising of psych drugs to treat chemical imbalances in the brain. A theory only with no clinical evidence, patients are put on mood-altering drugs at the whim of a psychiatrist or medical practitioner.

The elderly in our nursing homes are regularly put on anti-depressants for their “depression”. Most of them lived 7 or more decades without drugging away their blues. If you had just been taken from your home and put into an unfamiliar place confined to bed or wheelchair, wouldn’t you be upset? Frankly, I would. Any loss of personal freedom tends to bring people downward emotionally. There are many ways to help an elderly person gain more independence and have some autonomy even in restricted conditions such as these nursing homes and rehab centers. Most of these elderly just need someone to talk to, not another pill.

I have personally observed and spoken with many parents about their children’s’ diets. I found that most parents with kids on Ritalin, Adderal, Concerta, or any other drug given to treat “attention” disorders, have no clue how refined sugars affect their kids’ hyperactivity. I have watched in dismay as mothers in grocery stores give their youngsters candy in hopes that they will be quiet until the shopping is complete. She is likely to have a yelling, out-of-control brat in 30 minutes for all of us to enjoy as well at the check out line. This is a known effect of blood sugar levels and food allergies/sensitivities. Some hyperactivity in kids, including the inability to concentrate, can be reproduced at will with food. Most kids with this condition have food allergies that prompt them to feel frantic and ill. Being young and unable to voice their physical discomfort, they go from play item to play item, get moody and irritable, and basically try to work off the effects of the food with activity, high amounts of it.

TeenScreen and other screening programs are infiltrating schools and other institutions testing children for symptoms of “mental disorders”. Those teens who answer yes to such broad questions as “Have you often felt very nervous when you’ve had to do things in front of people?” are likely to get a life-long label and a prescription, without any proper medical testing or even an inquiry about their diet.

Those are my observations of so-called “mental illnesses”. Many, if not all, can be found to have physical causes and can be handled in ways not requiring glossing over with dangerous mood and mind-altering drugs. Our population, especially the elderly and the children, deserve better treatment.

Sincerely,

Kenneth W. Thomas, RN, BS