When Lyme is misdiagnosed as mental illness–“A road to nowhere”
Depression, anxiety, and other mental symptoms are frustratingly common in people with long-term Lyme disease. Why is this?
Some might attribute it to the fact that the patient’s life has gotten so tough lately. Pain, fatigue, insomnia and other “gifts” of Lyme disease can certainly contribute to a negative frame of mind.
However, an article in the latest issue of the journal Monitor on Psychology delves into the question of how tick-borne infection may directly cause mental disorders.
Reporter Charlotte Huff notes that researchers are still unraveling the precise mechanisms involved, “but there is clearly an inflammatory connection.”
She quotes psychiatrist Dr. Brian Fallon, head of Columbia University’s Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center:
“It’s definitely very well accepted to say that any infection that can cause an encephalitis, which means inflammation in the brain, can cause psychiatric disorders, Any infection can do that, and Borrelia can do it as well.”
According to Huff, Fallon and others who treat these patients point out that their mental health symptoms can manifest in ways that may differ from individuals who haven’t contracted Lyme. Joseph Trunzo, PhD, says that one notable hallmark in Lyme patients is the duration and acuity of anxiety without any apparent underlying triggers.
“In Lyme-driven anxiety, people will often feel this really intense, prolonged, almost nonstop, very high anxiety,” Trunzo said. “It might not be a full-blown panic attack, but it’s pretty high to the point where it’s extremely uncomfortable and very distracting and makes it difficult for them to function.”
In the article, Huff interviews a number of psychologists who work with Lyme patients. Sheila Statlender states that the potential for misdiagnosis on the medical side makes it challenging for psychologists to pinpoint whether a patient’s depression or anxiety could be caused by Lyme.
Sudden onset of symptoms
Statlender advises psychologists to look out for any sudden onset of symptoms. For instance, she notes that an adult patient may experience panic attacks or anxiety for the first time, or a high-achieving student may begin to struggle in school.
The underlying cause of the symptoms matters. If the root of the problem is an underlying infection, treatments that don’t address the infection won’t help.
Huff also spoke with Lorraine Johnson, CEO of LymeDisease.org and Principal Investigator of the MyLymeData patient registry. Johnson describes her own experience with having Lyme disease misdiagnosed as major depression.
“If you are misdiagnosed with a psychiatric illness, you will be treated with psychotropic medications, and those are not without side effects,” said Johnson. “And they may lead you on a road to nowhere. That’s basically what happened to me for about five years.”
TOUCHED BY LYME is written by Dorothy Kupcha Leland, President of LymeDisease.org. She is co-author of When Your Child Has Lyme Disease: A Parent’s Survival Guide. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.