Reform for how healthcare workers treat people with substance use and mental health disorders

by Brandon Thomas

The emergence of COVID-19 has put health care in breaking news. Every day, we hear of the tragic deaths due to this pandemic. We are also hearing of heroic efforts by healthcare workers, what they are doing for their patients and how communities are coming together to help one another out in this trying time.

COVID-19 has also exposed weaknesses in the U.S. healthcare system, like the lack of personal protective equipment, poor regulations on long-term care facilities and poor response from government agencies.

Another weakness to consider is the stigma and bias that those with mental health disorders and substance use disorders experience in the healthcare system. The bias and stigma come directly from healthcare professionals.

I know firsthand the effects of stigma and bias on patients because I have been working in health care for 22 years; 19 of those years have been serving people with mental health and substance use disorders. As a healthcare professional, I have been guilty of perpetrating stigma and fell victim to my own bias while serving this population. I made disparaging remarks such as, “They are just playing the game,” or, “They are psychotic.” I even went as far as to say things like patients were “attention seeking” and, “They are just manipulating us.”

What I did directly affected the quality of services that I was delivering to those living with these disorders. I even discounted my clients’ experiences and avoided working with certain disorders.

The irony is that for 20 years I, myself, have been on a journey with five mental health diagnoses: bipolar II disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder and alcohol abuse disorder. I found myself in some very dark places in my life, up to and including a suicide attempt. I have been on a multitude of medications, seen many different mental health specialists and had a few inpatient hospital stays.

Brandon Thomas is a patient care technician at an inpatient detox and rehab unit in a major hospital in Pittsburgh.

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