Why Isn’t Mental Pain Taken As Seriously As Physical Pain By Medical Profession?

I have lost count of the number of times I have complained to a doctor, therapist or psychiatrist about the torment of living in constant, excruciating mental pain rendering me unable to function in almost every meaningful aspect of life (and non-meaningful aspects, come to that, only to be met with an apathetic yawn and a blank stare as if to say ‘Oh, yeah? And what do you expect me to do about it, exactly?’ Perhaps they thought it was hyperbole. It wasn’t though, and this truth is borne out by eventually undergoing ECT and spending five days in a coma in intensive care following an extremely serious (I thought, foolproof) suicide attempt. I still can’t believe I survived it and it almost makes one wonder if the quantum theory of transitioning between parallel universes has any merit!

I am, of course, far from alone in wondering why psychological suffering can often, it seems, be all but ignored by the medical profession with complete impunity. Indeed, Shattell argues that just as failure to properly assess and treat physical pain is seen as unethical, so too should similar failures with regard to mental pain be regarded is highly ethically questionable. Shattell also points out that this glaring dichotomy is reflected in the medical profession’s more general tendency to prioritize the treatment of the body over the treatment of the mind.

Indeed, researchers involved in a study published in the journal ‘Health Affairs’ surveyed 1000 primary care facilities in the United States conducted by has found empirical evidence that those suffering mental anguish (the study focused on depression) received poorer care than those who were suffering from a chronic physical condition (with a focus on diabetes, asthma and congestive heart failure) in terms of the expected protocol such as educating their patients about their condition, following up on them and managing their care plans.

Mental Suffering Linked To Physical Suffering

It is also vital that it is understood that mental suffering/harm and physical suffering/harm interact with one another so that ignoring mental suffering equates to ignoring highly significant contributory factors to physical suffering. Or, to put it another way, because of the mind-body connection, not treating a person’s mental suffering also means that the same person is at higher risk of physical ill-health, reduced life expectancy and death.

For example, severe and ongoing stress in childhood caused by psychological abuse can:

  • elevate levels of proinflammatory cytokines (Hartwell et al., 2013) which may increase the person’s risk of stress-related diseases such as diabetes, stroke, heart disease and many others
  • shorten telomeres (packets of genetic material that act as caps at each end of DNA strands providing our chromosomes with protection). This can increase the rate at which we age and, therefore, reduce our life expectancy.

In short, we can say that severe and protracted emotional abuse leading to chronic mental suffering by its very nature contains within itself physical abuse and adverse physical repercussions.


Hartwell KJ, Moran-Santa Maria MM, Twal WO, et al. Association of elevated cytokines with childhood adversity in a sample of healthy adults. J Psychiatr Res. 2013;47(5):604-610. doi:10.1016/j.jpsychires.2013.01.008

“The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study”. cdc.gov. Atlanta, Georgia: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Division of Violence Prevention. May 2014.



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).