Our weekly roundup of sexism and dismissal in women’s health
In the week that Donald Trump declared the NHS would be “on the table” as part of any post-Brexit trade deal with the US, plenty of us – myself included – are feeling pretty defensive of our wonderful British healthcare system, which is most certainly not up for sale. It might not be perfect, but I for one am incredibly grateful for our NHS and the brilliant, hardworking doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals who work in it.
I recently tweeted the following, which turned out to be my most popular tweet in recent history:
I know a lot of my work lately is writing about GPs who’ve dismissed, misdiagnosed, minimised and disbelieved women’s health concerns, but massive shout out to my own GP who (like lots and lots of them are) is absolutely bloody brilliant ❤️
— Sarah Graham (@SarahGraham7) May 14, 2019
While it’s absolutely true – and one of the reasons why I’ve always been clear that this blog is neither anti-NHS nor anti the incredible, over-worked, under-resourced people who work in it – there’s still plenty of work to be done. This week’s news included a 5% increase in STIs (thanks, at least in part, to cuts to sexual health services) and an ‘alarming rise’ in self-harm, particularly among young women, with only half of those affected receiving support. Also this week, a landmark study from the University of Birmingham found a significant link between domestic abuse and serious mental illness, with female survivors ‘three times more likely’ to develop schizophrenia or bipolar. Despite this link, and the fact 25% of women experience some form of domestic violence in their lifetime, only 0.5% of women have abuse noted on their GP record. Meanwhile, in the US, a ‘damning new report’ found that Trump’s ‘global gag rule’ is killing women by depriving them of access to vital reproductive healthcare and advice. And finally, thanks to this week’s guest blogger Hilary Webb, who wrote for us about the vindication of finally proving her endometriosis symptoms weren’t all in her head.
If that little lot isn’t depressing enough already, here’s what else has been happening in women’s health this week…
I know what drives young people to self-harm – I did it for years
On the subject of rising self-harm rates, journalist Harriet Williamson wrote for The Guardian about her own experiences, unpicking the complex and multifaceted reasons behind the increase. Reflecting on her early experiences of self-harm, Harriet writes:
There’s still a lack of appropriate training for GPs, who may not have the skills to handle the situation appropriately. The first time I was taken to the GP for self-harming at 16, the doctor took one look at me and pronounced my wounds “superficial”. I vowed to make the future incisions as deep as possible, in order to be taken seriously.
My epilepsy was dismissed as teenage angst
Young journalist Ellie McKinnell was a runner up in The Telegraph’s Cassandra Jardine Memorial Prize with her piece on the psychosis she experienced as a side effect of epilepsy medication (not epilepsy, as the slightly misleading headline suggests) during her teens:
One day things reached a point where I felt I really needed help. I googled, self-diagnosed myself with bipolar, printed off the symptom list, put ticks against the ones that fitted me and left it on my parents’ bed with a letter. They told me I definitely didn’t have bipolar and that it’s just part of being a teenager, but eventually I managed to convince them I needed help.
Over the years I saw quite a few people, not least the school counsellor who was stumped when I couldn’t tell her my childhood memories, the child psychologist who said he didn’t like labels, and the therapist who told me I had Asperger’s. No one was able to do anything to make me feel better. No one even seemed to really believe me.
They’re a vital diagnostic tool for checking womb health, but beware the painful truth about ‘mildly uncomfortable’ internal checks
Campaign group Hysteroscopy Action claims many women are never told that general anaesthetic is even an option; instead they’re forced to endure the trauma once it’s started because they have no idea the procedure can be stopped and repeated when they have been put to sleep. And it warns the numbers suffering are much higher —affecting not just ‘at-risk’ groups — than official figures suggest.
A Freedom of Information request it submitted to NHS trusts in England, revealed the proportion of patients who reported severe pain during a hysteroscopy is much nearer one in four than the one in ten the RCOG suggests.
You Don’t Look Sick: ‘When I collapse in public, people tell me to stop being dramatic’
As part of their ‘You Don’t Look Sick’ series, The Metro this week published an interview with 30-year-old Hayley Ray, who suffers from both endometriosis and PCOS. She told them:
‘I got called into a HR meeting once and asked what was going on. I explained myself and the pain my period left me in and they turned around and told me; “You have to man up, take some paracetamol and just get on with things”.
‘I remember bursting into tears and before I could say anything they told me; “You don’t even look sick.”
‘When I’d collapse in public I had a lot of people say; “stop being over dramatic”.
After 8 Years Of Chronic Pain, Here’s What I’ve Learned About Advocating For Myself
Jenna Birch wrote for Bustle about the lessons she’s learned from years of living with chronic pain. She writes about learning to advocate for herself, and realising that the ‘femaleness’ of her pain made doctors less likely to take it seriously:
I’ve felt dismissed by the medical community since my teenage years, as a chronic pain sufferer with fibromyalgia and a battery of conditions that come with it (IBS, interstitial cystitis, high blood pressure). With this particular instance of feeling blown off, I kept wondering if it was just the perfect storm of “female” — pain condition, weird symptoms, birth control — that I kept being ignored. It wasn’t just the delay in treatment that irked me, but also the time spent and cost of each visit. I am not alone in being dismissed by medical providers.
She goes on to detail the research showing how women’s pain is discounted by medical professionals, and the delays this can cause in both diagnosis and treatment.
It takes an average of five years to be diagnosed with fibromyalgia, according to the American Chronic Pain Association. Before I received a diagnosis, one doctor thought I was on drugs. Another told me sciatica. Another thought maybe a UTI. The very first time I had a full-body pain flare, I went to the ER because the symptoms were so crushing that it hurt to lay in a bed. The doctor told me that I probably had a kidney stone. That immediately felt wrong, but I was 19 and too young to question medical authority figures. Years later, I would read an eerie account in The Atlantic, in which doctors wrote off the author’s life-threatening “ovarian torsion” as a kidney stone.
Rosie Mullender wrote for Marie Claire about the gender pain gap, asking ‘Is pain a feminist issue?’ (Spoiler alert: yes, obviously, but as a Hysterical Women reader you already knew that!) Dr Amanda Williams, a clinical psychologist at University College London told Rosie:
In general, women are thought to make a lot of fuss about something that’s not serious. There’s a cultural tradition that regards women as unreliable witnesses. In this environment, pain can become normalised. Women know periods and sex can be painful. It sets a precedent, and an acceptance that for some, pain is unavoidable.