Where to begin?
Perhaps I'll start by saying that I recognize my privilege as a white person speaking about discrimination in the health and wellness space. As a queer, female person who has struggled with mental illness, I'm no stranger to navigating biases and assumptions, but acknowledge that I cannot compare my experience to any person of colour. My goal is to do my part to be an ally by raising awareness of how health care fails so many marginalized communities.
Personally, many of my negative interactions with doctors stem from my history with mental illness. When I was 14 or 15, I was extremely depressed and also paranoid which meant I went for months sleeping less than 2 hours a night. My mother took me to our family doctor, who wrote a prescription in our less than 10 minute appointment and sent us on our way. He didn't explain what the prescription was actually for, only that it would make me sleepy. A quick Google search informed my mum that the drug was in fact an anti-depressant with sedative properties, and it hadn't been tested on anyone under the age of 18. Needless to say, we didn't fill it.
Fast forward a few years to when I was spiralling out of control into my eating disorder and once again, my mother took me to the doctor. He shrugged and said, "She's not that underweight. When she's hungry, she'll eat." I felt like someone had punched me in the gut and tried not to cry while my mum spelled out for him that no, actually, I wasn't eating when I was hungry and that was the problem. He offered a bottle of Ensure which sent me scuttling into a corner. He smiled, shrugged, and said, "Mangia."
Only when I became "that underweight" and had a recommendation letter from an outpatient program that I be sent to inpatient treatment did this doctor express his "concern." I could make an entire post dedicated to insensitive things doctors have said to me about eating disorders, but that's a topic for another time.
For better or worse, I fall into the stereotypical demographic of people likely to have anorexia. Young, female, perfectionist, over-achiever, and white. In my small Ontario hometown, it was difficult to access care, but I had support. My parents did research, paid for therapy, sat with me while I had meltdowns, and made sure I was safe. I looked the part so no one questioned that I was sick.
Not everyone is so lucky to have advocates in their corner when they need help. Eating disorders and other mental illnesses do not discriminate. Anyone of any gender, age, or ethnicity can be struggling but go unacknowledged. Black women and other people of colour in particular suffer from the lack of education and representation, as do LGBTQIA+ individuals, disabled individuals, older people, and men.
Beyond mental illness, similar barriers exist when dealing with physical illness. Wait times for treatment are longer, and doctors are more likely to assume a person of colour is seeking drugs. A 2016 study revealed that some white medical professionals believed that black people had thicker skin, faster coagulating blood, and felt less pain compared to white people. Writing that down and saying it out loud sounds bizarre and horrifying, but unfortunately, it corresponds to how black people are treated (or, as the case may be, not treated) by the medical system.
I've also heard countless anecdotes from women and girls who have been dismissed by doctors because they think women are hypochondriacs, hysterical, anxious, exaggerating, attention-seeking...the list goes on. This problem is especially true when it comes to reproductive health. Conditions like endometriosis and PCOS are notoriously hard to get a diagnosis for because the pain and other symptoms can be written off as "bad periods," and again, the challenge is amplified when the woman is not white.
When I had amenorrhea for 4 and a half years, the only solution I was offered was birth control. The many doctors I went to during that time would always be confused when I said I wasn't already on birth control, and would ask "So are you relying on condoms? Do you have an IUD?" And I would have to explain, no, I was just gay (and too much of an emotional basket case to think about relationships, but I didn't say that part out loud). The doctors were always taken aback and then slightly confused. Some would go one step further and say something like, "Oh good for you! Probably easier that way anyway, right?" I never figured out a good response. That was just an awkward conversation to have but it reinforced the feeling of being "other."
All of this frustration with conventional health care is partly what pushed me to pursue health coaching in the first place. However I can, I want to help change the system to make wellness accessible for everyone. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect, dignity, and understanding. No exceptions.