Mental Anguish

The term “mental anguish” is used to refer to the psychological suffering that someone experiences as a result of, most commonly, a personal injury or other injury caused by another’s actions. Mental anguish, also called and “emotional distress,” can include anxiety, depression, trauma, or grief. Post-traumatic stress disorder, a form of mental anguish, can develop into serious problems if left untreated. To explore this concept, consider the following mental anguish definition.

Definition of Mental Anguish


  1. The psychological suffering that someone experiences as the result of a traumatizing experience.
  2. A high degree of emotional torment, distress, or suffering


1175-1225       Latin    angustia

What is Mental Anguish

The term “mental anguish” is used to refer to the psychological effects that someone feels after going through a particularly traumatic experience, such as those pertaining to personal injury or malpractice cases. The problem with mental anguish, however, is that it is not an easy thing to prove, especially in a court of law where damages are often requested to compensate the suffering plaintiff. With mental anguish, there is nothing tangible to point to as evidence, like an X-ray that would be used to prove a person’s physical injury.

Mental Anguish in a Personal Injury Lawsuit

Mental anguish in a personal injury lawsuit can extend to other parts of the claimant’s life, often significantly damaging his overall quality of life. Consider the following example of how mental anguish in a personal injury lawsuit can have a lasting effect on the things a person used to enjoy:

Lisa enjoyed working as a pediatric nurse for years. One snowy day, however, she slipped and fell on a patch of ice as she was leaving her office. She slipped a disc in her back and was laid up for weeks, when her doctor told her that her back would never be the same. Lisa soon discovered that, due to the severe pain she experienced after standing only short periods of time, she would not be able to return to working as a nurse.

Because she had to go on disability, Lisa began having serious financial problems, and missed her career terribly. She became seriously depressed, and developed agoraphobia due to her fear of leaving the house, and possibly suffering a similar slip and fall.

Lisa found herself stuck in a constant state of frustration, to the point where every little thing set her off. She also suffered a severe drop in the quality of her sleep, due to both her mental anguish and her physical pain. All of these symptoms culminated in Lisa also feeling anxious that her quality of life would never improve, that she would be doomed to live out the rest of her days in pain and suffering, and that she would simply never get better.

Lisa’s mental anguish caused her to have chronic headaches, anxiety, which have had a severely adverse effect on her quality of life. When attempting to prove her mental anguish in a personal injury lawsuit, Lisa will need statements by doctors, a list of the medications she may have been taking for her symptoms, as well as to provide the court with the specific reasons for her depression and poor sleep quality.

Symptoms of Mental Anguish

Symptoms of mental anguish can vary, depending on the individual and the situation at hand. For example, mental anguish may be more severe for someone who lived through a bank robbery than for someone who experienced the tarnishing of his professional reputation. In some cases, symptoms of mental anguish can be quite debilitating, to the point where the person cannot – or will not – leave his home. Even something as simple as a slip and fall can cause significant mental anguish, especially if the person is elderly or otherwise disabled.

Symptoms of mental anguish include, but are not limited to:

  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Fear of certain situations
  • Feelings of guilt
  • Insomnia
  • Physical ailments, such as ulcers or chronic migraines

Unfortunately, suffering from one of these symptoms may not be enough to persuade a court to award damages, unless that symptom is particularly severe. The more severe the symptoms, and the more symptoms a person suffers, the more likely he will be to succeed in a claim of damages for mental anguish.

In proving his case, the plaintiff should be prepared to explain the reason for his symptoms. A claimant saying simply “I can’t sleep” may be less convincing to a judge than his providing of specifics, such as how long his condition has persisted, and whether it is pain, nightmares, anxiety, or some other form of physical or mental anguish that keeps him awake at night. Some people may feel uncomfortable revealing too many personal details, but the more that is disclosed to the court, the better chance they will have at being awarded the damages they seek.

Proving Mental Anguish

Because mental anguish is so notoriously difficult to prove, a claimant may not be sure of exactly what he needs to do in order to pursue a related lawsuit. What follows is a list of potential ways in which someone may be able to prove his mental anguish. A claimant may, in some cases, need to show several of these elements in order to prove his claim to the court’s satisfaction.

Medical Records or Letter from a Doctor

Providing medical records that document the patient’s specific emotional distress symptoms is a tried and true way of proving mental anguish. The records or letter can be from a physician or a psychologist, and should support the condition(s) the plaintiff claims to be suffering.

Duration of Symptoms

The length of time that someone is suffering from mental anguish can help prove the fact that he is suffering from it in the first place. Documenting the time the symptoms began, as well as how long they have been going on can go a long way to proving mental anguish.

Intensity of Symptoms

The more intense someone’s condition is, the more likely he will be able to prove that his mental anguish is severe enough to warrant compensation. However, in some cases, courts may also require the claimant to show proof that he suffered a physical injury, if the plaintiff claims that is the cause of his mental anguish.

Underlying Cause

The more severe the cause of a claimant’s mental anguish, the better chance the court will find for emotional distress. For example, mental anguish claims that are related to a terrorist attack may be more successful than a claim of mental anguish involved in a more typical fender-bender type of situation.

Physical Harm

Proving mental anguish may be easier if the claimant can also prove that he suffers physical ailments that are related to his mental state. Ulcers, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and heart problems can all serve as proof of severe mental anguish that would not otherwise be experienced had the person not experienced the incident in question.


The claimant may be able to succeed on his claim if he can show the court proof of any prescriptions he has been issued for depression or anxiety that were prescribed to him since the incident. Also helpful may be proof of prescriptions that were issued for physical ailments that the claimant only began to suffer since the date of the incident. Dosages can also assist in proving the severity of the claimant’s conditions.

Letters and Journals

It can be helpful for a claimant to obtain letters from those closest to him, such as friends, family, as well as his employer and co-workers, that can illustrate for the court exactly how the claimant has changed since the incident took place. Those who have noticed the claimant’s outward signs of depression or mental struggles may provide the objective viewpoint the court needs to see that the claimant’s assertions are legitimate. A journal recounting the claimant’s day-to-day thoughts and feelings since the incident can also work to prove his mental state and its potential deterioration since the incident in question.

Mental Anguish Example Involving the Westboro Baptist Church

In 2006, Fred Phelps, the founder of the Westboro Baptist Church, organized a protest of a military funeral that was being held in Maryland. Phelps, along with several members of the Westboro Baptist Church, stood outside the Maryland State House, the U.S. Naval Academy, and the church where the funeral was being held, with picket signs. On the picket signs were written phrases like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “Thank God for 9/11.”

Albert Snyder, the father of the deceased soldier, saw the picketers but could not read their signs from where he was. Snyder sued Phelps, his fellow protestors, and the church in federal district court, claiming, among other things, intentional infliction of emotional distress.

During the trial, it was shown that Phelps had informed the local authorities that the protest would be taking place, and he had complied with the police’s instructions insofar as how to stage the protest. The protestors organized their demonstration on a 10-foot by 25-foot plot of public land that was located 1,000 feet from the funeral. There was no proof that any shouting, violence, or otherwise troublesome behavior had taken place during the half-hour protest, which took place before the funeral.

Snyder testified that, although he was unable to read what was written on the protestors’ signs, he had still suffered severe depression and emotional anguish as a result of their protest. Snyder won his damages claim with the trial court, and the jury awarded him $2.9 million in compensatory damages, and another $8 million in punitive damages. The district court affirmed the jury’s verdict, save for the punitive damages amount which was lowered to $2.1 million.

On appeal, the court of appeals reversed the trial court’s decision and held that Phelps’ protest was protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court granted the requested writ of certiorari, but ultimately upheld the court of appeals’ reversal, saying that:

“The ‘special protection’ afforded to what Westboro said, in the whole context of how and where it chose to say it, cannot be overcome by a jury finding that the picketing was ‘outrageous’ for purposes of applying the state law tort of intentional infliction of emotional distress. That would pose too great a danger that the jury would punish Westboro for its views on matters of public concern. For all these reasons, the jury verdict imposing tort liability on Westboro for intentional infliction of emotional distress must be set aside.”

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Claimant – A person who files a claim against another party in a court of law.
  • Compensatory Damages – An award of money in compensation for actual economic loss, property damage, or injury, not including punitive damages.
  • Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
  • Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages, to punish the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.