Can the Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness Stop Stigma?

January 27, 2020 Laura A. Barton

The physical symptoms of mental illness and mental health struggles are not often spoken about but are important pieces in understanding mental health overall. I'm sure to some, pairing physical symptoms with something mental seems like a misnomer. Maybe that's part of why physical symptoms are used in the battle against stigma. But can the existence of physical symptoms stop mental health stigma?

People Use Physical Symptoms to Legitimize Mental Illness Struggles

I've written about the physical side of mental illness a number of times, including in a post titled, "Decrease Stigma: Social Anxiety Is Not Shyness" right here on HealthyPlace. I'm among the people who've experienced nausea, dizziness, shaking, racing pulse, unsettled stomach, and even months of missed periods resulting from a mix of anxiety, depression, and stress. I absolutely know how much of a role these physical symptoms play in the overall experience of mental health struggles and they need to be spoken about as a part of the package ("The Physical Symptoms of Depression and Extra Stress").

Where I become conflicted about physical symptoms of mental illness is when they're used to combat mental health stigma. As important as they are, I hate that it takes the presence of physical symptoms in order to legitimize mental health struggles for some people.

On some level, I know it's because people have a better understanding of physical ailments and the mental health sphere is still largely an enigma. It still bothers me. Especially considering that even when you highlight the physical symptoms, there's still a catch. That catch is that the physical symptoms have to be acceptable.

Do the Nature of the Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness Matter to Stop Mental Health Stigma?

When it comes to people being receptive to physical symptoms accompanying mental illness and mental health struggles, they have to be ones that people can understand and potentially even relate to. For example, the wounds, infections, and pain that can come as a result of my excoriation (skin-picking) disorder are not among the acceptable.

Watch this video, where I elaborate on this notion of acceptable physical symptoms and what happens with mental health stigma when they're not.

Mental Health's Physical Symptoms Can't Always Stop Mental Health Stigma

With all this in mind, I don't think physical symptoms of mental illness can stop mental health stigma overall. We should absolutely continue to speak about and bring to light the different ways mental health struggles and mental illness affect people physically as well as mentally. However, I don't think using them to legitimize mental health struggles and mental illness as "real things" is effective.

It may help some people realize mental health is more than "all in your head," which is definitely great. What I mean is we shouldn't rely on it as the crux of our argument. Instead, it's likely a mix of different tactics that will have the greatest effect when stopping mental health stigma.

APA Reference
Barton, L. (2020, January 27). Can the Physical Symptoms of Mental Illness Stop Stigma?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 15 from

Author: Laura A. Barton

Laura A. Barton is a fiction and non-fiction writer from Ontario, Canada. Follow her writing journey and book love on Instagram, and Goodreads.

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