It’s Not Just In Her Head

When it comes to the issues that women face, believing and trusting their struggle has been an important piece of fighting for equality —- but it seems that the medical field still has yet to get the memo

Elliot White (they/them) // Features Editor
Talia Rouck // Illustrator

The physical pain that comes with chronic illness is immeasurable, but the emotional damage of being gaslit, dismissed and blatantly ignored might be even worse. 

Picture this: you seek help for a distressing, daily occurrence — something that you’re desperately trying to change — only to be called dramatic. You feel downtrodden and overwhelmed with hopelessness. Where do you turn when the one place you can go to for help isn’t willing to help you? 

Women are frequently dismissed when it comes to medical issues — from medical professionals blaming issues on weight mismanagement, an inability to handle simple “period pains” weight, or hysteria. This causes thousands of women to go undiagnosed or even misdiagnosed with unrelated conditions. 

One of the most frequent missed illnesses is endometriosis, a condition that affects the uterus, causing unspeakable pain and even pregnancy complications . 

Katie Luciani (she/her), Executive Director of The Endometriosis Network Canada (TENC), started working for the company after attending a support group meeting for people with endometriosis.“When I first got symptoms, I didn’t know what was wrong with me,” said Luciani. “I didn’t have much hope.” 

Attending endometriosis support group meetings allowed Luciani to feel validated, and realise she wasn’t going through her pain and suffering alone. “We’ve seen people at 11 or 12 with unspeakable menstrual pain,” said Luciani. “The first place you go is your GP.”

A lack of education around conditions like endometriosis is one of the leading causes of missed diagnoses, something that can result in years of diagnostic delays. “If your GP is actually educated with endo and what those symptoms are, that’s the front line defence right there,” said Luciani. This lack of education can have grave consequences — according to the Canadian Patient Safety Institute, medical errors account for 28,000 deaths in Canada per year.

Women were largely excluded from clinical trials until the National Institute of Health’s Revitalization Act in 1993, and to this day their health concerns are rarely taken seriously. Symptoms like depression and anxiety are often brushed aside as “hysteria” or a particularly rough menstrual cycle, when in reality the causes could be more dire. 

In March 2020, Karissa Ostheimer discovered that her sporadic episodes of paralysis and panic, which doctors had dismissed as premenstrual dysphoric disorder, was actually evidence of a cancerous brain tumour. A visit to the neurologist indicated that Ostheimer was having an average of 20 partial-complex seizures per day.

In 1965, psychiatrist Eliot Slater released a paper detailing how harmful the frequent diagnosis of “hysteria” was on women. Most of the women interviewed had underlying, serious neurological conditions that went unnoticed. 57 years later, the narrative remains the same. 

Foundations like TENC or The Canadian Foundation for Women’s Health are working towards policy change and a better, more positive future for women’s health. “We’ve actually set up [EndoAct, which is] a toolkit to help write letters to your MPs,” said Luciani.“We’ve seen Australia and some other places around the world actually be able to come together as a community and have their governments acknowledge the mistreatment of people with endo.” 

Over half of medical school students are women, which will hopefully lead to an increase in support and education of women’s health issues. However, plenty of work remains before we can close the medical gender gap. The more we work towards policy change, the closer we get to proving that this isn’t just in her head — she needs help. 

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