The Stigma of Mental Illness and Panic Attacks


As I move forward in overcoming panic attacks, agoraphobia, et all, I have been thinking a lot about the social stigma of mental illness. For the record, let me say that I do not for one minute think that I am mentally ill. I know that my brain has an exaggerated response to fear, and I have bursts of adrenaline that cause anxiety and panic. Period.

That being said, there is a huge social stigma to anything remotely related to mental illness. Those two words are like a black mark on the report card of life. The following are 3 situations where I directly was affected on some level by ‘the stigma’ of having panic and anxiety disorders.

Back in 1987 when I was in college, I told one of my professors about my panic disorder and she said how brave I was. She was a professor of psychiatric nursing. We had become close over the semester and she felt safe to me, which is why I let her in on my secret.

Later when I was applying for a position at local hospital I asked her if I should divulge to the interviewer about my panic attacks (me thinking it was a positive character trait since she said I was brave and all).  So imagine what a mixed message I was sent when she said firmly, “do NOT under any circumstances” tell a prospective employer about this. I know it was over 20 years ago but it’s stuck with me all these years.

The stigma was huge back then and this experience only served to reinforce the tremendous shame I felt at the time and to hide my anxious feelings at all costs. As much as it hurt me to hear her words, this professor was right. I have always held a respectable job with a title, and I have seen how people who do reveal psychiatric issues with their employers get looked down upon. Because of this I have never revealed my anxiety issues with work people.

13 years ago I was denied life insurance because my primary care physician at the time said something in his doctor’s notes that I was not privy to. At the time I didn’t pursue the insurance issue, but I did switch doctors because after that I thought he was a real jerk. His records were kept on file for something like 5 years. Thankfully after that I was able to get life insurance.

Less than a year ago I was at my new primary care physician’s office requesting my new Klonopin stigma of mental illnessprescription. I made it a point to tell her my complete history at my previous appointment, the fact that I had panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and panic attacks. I also told her all of the medications I took, the dosages and frequency. I brought all my prescription meds with me for her to see. She took copious notes on her computer.

Two weeks later I went to her for a new prescription. She left me sitting in the exam room for about 10 minutes. When she came back, she was accompanied by a nurse. I knew immediately that something was wrong. She told me, ‘There seems to be a little problem, Mrs. Green. You’re telling me you only have 2 more days worth of Klonopin. We called the pharmacy and according to them, you should still have a months worth of pills. Why do you think they said that?’

I knew what she was insinuating: that I had doubled up on my medication, and she was trying to put me in the hot seat. I turned scarlet red and burst into tears. If I didn’t have my medication, I was at risk for seizures, a horrifying thought to me. I experienced a severe panic attack on the spot. Through my tears, I heard this doctor asking me if I wouldn’t mind bringing my prescription bottle in to show her that I really only had 2 pills left. The nurse who was with her patted my back and said, ‘it’s ok honey’.

So I drove all the way home and got the bottle. I was humiliated beyond belief and also terrified. When I went back into her office with my 2 stigma of mental illnessmeasly pills in their appropriately labeled controlled substance bottle, she met me at the door and told me with a big smile and a sing song voice, ‘Mrs. Green there was a mistake! The pharmacy read your refill wrong. You were right and they apologize. Here’s your prescription!’ The same nurse started patting my back again.

I could barely see straight I was so upset. I was shaking all over and could not calm down. This is the gist of what I said, ‘I need to tell you how I’m feeling. Because of this nonsense and being treated like a #!&@#  baby, I had a huge panic attack and now I have a migraine headache. Thank you for the excellent care, Doctor!’

Some people may think this is not appropriate subject matter for a blog. To them I would say, did these so called professionals behave appropriately towards me? I don’t think so, and I don’t think I’m alone in my experiences with mental illness stigma.

Considering the sheer number of people who are afflicted with anxiety disorders, coupled with the fact that we are supposedly a tolerant society (oh yes, and hello what century are we in?) I find it unconscionable that we have to grapple with such a social stigma.

This doctor appointment traumatized the hell out of me, and I was on the pity pot for a few days. But then I decided, enough is enough. I vowed never again to be at the mercy of some doctor who metaphorically dangled her power to write prescriptions over me and treat me in such an undignified manner. I decided to find a good primary care physician who would listen to me and help me eventually get off my meds. Which is exactly what I did.

After this weekend, when I will attend a panic triggering social event (a bridal shower thrown by some casual acquaintances, two of whom I know do not care for me), I am going to further reduce my Klonopin. The goal, of course, is to get completely off it. While not looking forward to the nasty Klonopin withdrawal, I absolutely cannot wait to be completely off anti anxiety meds.

Have you ever experienced the stigma of mental illness (so called) like me? Feel free to speak your mind. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

I wish you peace,
Jill G.

p.s. As you may know by now, I am using Panic Away as I wean off my meds and recover from panic attacks and anxiety. I love this program, it is absolutely working for me and I highly recommend it. To read my full review of the program click here.

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4 Responses to The Stigma of Mental Illness and Panic Attacks

  1. Catherine says:

    I have panic attacks because of PTSD, and just had one at work last week. Tomorrow will be my first day back at the office and I’m so scared of returning. I don’t know what questions they will ask, how much to explain, or anything about what to say. I know I could be totally honest but am worried about the stigma, and of them wondering whether they can still rely on me. The panic attack I had at work was one of the worst I’ve ever had. I didn’t feel certain of what was happening but I wanted to go home and they wanted me to go to the hospital. I told them that I might be having an anxiety attack but I wasn’t sure. It felt like a whirlwind around me and they were making me more scared by talking about the hospital. They said they could call an ambulance and I told them I don’t like sirens. All they could see was that I was having trouble breathing and walking, and I was trembling. I eventually got them to take me home and then took 2 days off.

    I have other medical conditions but they haven’t interfered with my work in such an obvious way. I wish I could say that I have a heart ailment or diabetes – or anything other than a psychiatric condition. I don’t know if it would be better or worse for me to mention the PTSD. I think it could make them have more compassion than if I just tell them I have panic attacks, but I’m not sure. If I say I have PTSD then they might want to know why, and I can’t talk about that without risking having another panic attack.

    • JillG says:

      Hi Catherine,
      Since you already mentioned you thought you were having an anxiety attack, it won’t be a big deal for you to go in today and say something like, “It was a bad anxiety attack.” Period. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. If they ask you to explain, I’m guessing they might ask about what you were feeling, and you could talk about the physical symptoms, like you were really scared, your heart was racing, your mind went blank… You don’t need to go into great detail, if someone asks questions that seem too personal, you can say, “I really have no idea.” Remember why they’re asking- because they’re concerned about you. You don’t have to talk about the PTSD.
      I bet once this is over with you’ll find that worrying about what was going to happen at work was much worse than actually going back.
      Good luck and please let me know how it goes!
      Jill

      • Catherine says:

        Thanks, Jill. It worked out fine. Fortunately, I wasn’t bombarded with questions. One person asked me a question about what was wrong (I can’t even remember the question now) and then she must have sensed some hesitation because she realized it was personal and just said she was happy I’m feeling better. Another employee asked me if I’m on antibiotics now and I told her I’m not. I assured everyone that I’m feeling a lot better. :-) My problem today was trying to stay awake because the medication I just started is very strong. I’d rather be fighting off sleep than fighting off a panic attack (seems impossible).

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