‘That red flag on your file’: misinterpreting physical symptoms as mental illness

Brenda HAPPELL, Julia BOCKING, Chris PLATANIA-PHUNG, Robert Stanton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

32 Citations (Scopus)


BACKGROUND: People diagnosed with mental illness have higher occurrence of physical health problems. Responsive health care services are crucial for prevention and management of physical health problems, and for reducing disparities in health between people diagnosed with mental illness and those who are not. There is limited research giving voice to consumer perspectives on their experiences with health care providers.

DESIGN: Exploratory qualitative.

RESULTS: The main themes were: symptomising; failure to act and alertness to prejudice. The first two themes were consumer perceptions of the actions and behaviours of health professionals, and the third describes consumer responses to these behaviours and actions. Consumers described increased risks of illness and death because of undiagnosed physical illness despite their physical health advice-seeking as the reason for the health consultation.

METHODS: Focus group interviews with mental health consumers accessed via a consumer network group in a region of Australia (n = 31). All interview audio recordings were transcribed professionally. Interviews were thematically analysed.

CONCLUSION: Health care providers' non-recognition of physical health problems presents a clear example of a significant and potentially life threatening health inequity. The service provider responses described by participants suggest that mental health consumers' physical health needs may not be taken seriously.

RELEVANCE TO CLINICAL PRACTICE: Clinicians need to take seriously the physical health needs and concerns of people with mental illness. Nurses can play a crucial role in the prevention of diagnostic overshadowing as part of a broader direction of balancing biomedical perspectives with other approaches to health care.

AIMS AND OBJECTIVES: To ascertain the views and experiences of mental health consumers regarding the availability and quality of care and treatment received for their physical health needs.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2933-2942
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Clinical Nursing
Issue number19-20
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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