Does Non-Verbal Mental Health Stigma Exist?

November 23, 2018 Laura A. Barton

Non-verbal mental health stigma is perhaps more detrimental than verbalized stigma. Discover why at HealthyPlace.

I believe there are two kinds of stigma: verbal and non-verbal mental health stigma. We often think of stigma towards mental illness as being only the things people say. In doing so, we forget that non-verbal mental health stigma exists and can be just as negatively impactful as verbalized stigma. But what does non-verbal mental health stigma encompass?

What Is Non-Verbal Mental Health Stigma?

I see unspoken mental health stigma primarily as people's behaviors toward those with mental illness. While many wouldn't argue that avoidance, discrimination, and bullying can all factor into stigmatizing behavior, there is one type of behavior that, to me, is very much a facet of stigma.

That's the way people look at us because of our mental illnesses.

People have argued with me on this one and I've seen more than one person share the idea that others are too busy worrying about themselves to have any thoughts about us ("How to Stop Worrying What Other People Think About You"). I get it. But, although we are each self-absorbed to some degree and more concerned with how people will perceive us, I think it's setting false expectations that no one cares how we present ourselves.

I speak from experience. On more than one occasion, I've caught people giving me strange and dirty looks for my scarred skin or because I'm withdrawing into myself during a depressive or anxious episode. And, yes, I know when people are looking at me a particular way. Growing up facing both verbal and non-verbal mental health stigma, I've learned to tell stigmatized looks apart from people just happening to be looking in my direction.

Breaking It Down: How Can People Look in a Stigmatizing Way?

How can a simple look be stigma? It depends on the look and what it's in reaction to. Using my scarred skin as an example, there's a very stark difference in people looking in concern or curiosity and people looking in disgust. To put it simply, some people are not good at catching their emotions before they broadcast across their faces. I think we can all recognize a dirty look when we're faced with one.

Perhaps it's simply because I live in the skin I have, but I'm legitimately confused how concern isn't the first reaction. My mind never jumps to disgust; I'm more inclined to ask questions and learn people's stories.

The Impact of Non-Verbal Mental Health Stigma

Non-verbal mental health stigma has a way of playing with your head even more than verbal stigma. Verbal stigma is typically pretty clear. Non-verbal stigma can leave you questioning if you're overreacting or misinterpreting the way people are behaving toward you and looking at you. And people around you will probably say you are, too. Think back to what I mentioned about people being too concerned with themselves to care what others look like. I've been accused of attention-seeking for writing about someone having stared at my scars with disgust.

I don't mean to say every untoward action or look should be marked as stigma. However, being aware of the various layers of mental health stigma and how it affects people is important in our efforts to dismantle it. When we know what we're up against, we can learn how to deal with it more effectively.

APA Reference
Barton, L. (2018, November 23). Does Non-Verbal Mental Health Stigma Exist?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 19 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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