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The term “gaslighting” has gone in and out of vogue since the mid 20th century.
Popular once again, the word describes abuse that aims to make another person feel and seem mentally unstable. The abuser lies, and manipulates, chiseling away at a person’s confidence, credibility and mental well-being. Abusers attempt to convince a person no one will believe them and they won’t be taken seriously.
The term comes from the 1944 film “Gaslight.” In it, a man isolates his wife in a creepy Victorian home and tricks her into believing she’s close to mental collapse. This includes dimming and flickering the home’s gaslights while insisting they’re working properly.
Gaslighting extends beyond romantic relationships. It is about a sense of intimacy or closeness, uneven power dynamics and control.
Recently, people have begun to share experiences with medical gaslighting. This occurs when a health professional minimizes, ignores or denies information about a person’s pain and other symptoms.
It’s tough to talk about. Doctors are revered in U.S. culture, and many of us are taught not to question or doubt them.
There are many great health care professionals who wouldn’t intentionally attempt to create self-doubt in patients. They face many obstacles while trying to do their jobs. They genuinely care about patients.
However, medical gaslighting is a real, professionally acknowledged phenomenon. In 2021, for example, the American Medical Association underwent internal review when one of its journal editors denied repeatedly proved facts related to certain populations.
More than 40 million Americans live with chronic conditions they struggled to have diagnosed. In addition, Global Genes, an advocacy organization, notes it takes an average of 7.6 years for a rare disease diagnosis. Further, those patients see an average of eight doctors before receiving the correct diagnosis.
Failure to take patients seriously also contributes to mistakes. A Purdue University study of health technology shows the United States has a “significantly” higher rate of medical errors than other developed nations. As many as 250,000 U.S. patients per year die from medical errors, making it the third leading cause of death.
Another study shows that up to 9,000 people die each year from medication errors like prescribing the wrong drug or omitting key drug details from patient information.
Women and people of color are typically more likely to experience medical gaslighting due to systemic disparities, according to a 2022 Global Genes report on rare disease equity, diversity and inclusion.
Bogus ideas about racial differences persist among medical professionals. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA published results of a 2016 survey of medical students. It reports half of medical students who identified as “white” believed in debunked 19th century notions about people of African American descent having thicker skin, higher pain thresholds and other myths.
Stereotypes about women lacking reason and rationality were once considered medical facts, notes Joanna Kempner in her book, “Not Tonight: Migraine and the Politics of Gender and Health.”
Women were believed incapable of describing and contextualizing medical symptoms, especially pain severity, Kempner asserts. The “medical construction of women as ‘hysterical’” persists, allowing some medical professionals to treat women’s pain as “illegitimate.”
It became common to appease women and silence “female complaints” with pharmaceuticals, according to “It’s Those Pills that Are Ruining Me” by Krystale Littlejohn.
“Men have historically been seen as rational beings with the ability to control their emotions,” she writes, “but women’s emotion has been seen as ‘dangerously unregulated.’”
Karris Golden is a Gazette editorial fellow. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org