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The Inseparability of Mental Health and Physical Health

Mental health is often viewed and addressed as a problem separate from physical health. However, the reality is that mental health and physical health have dual effects on each other. Mental and physical health are inseparably interrelated and, therefore, should be acknowledged as equally important among all health professionals. I believe that if we promote a more specific awareness of the mutual relationship between mental health and physical health and the necessity to prioritize them equally, we can decrease the gap between the need for mental healthcare and the resources this country currently provides.

How does mental health affect physical health? During the COVID-19 pandemic, worry and stress about the COVID-19 virus was observed to have caused a worsening of chronic conditions. Additionally, people with depression are at higher risk for other medical conditions, such as heart disease. Why is this the case? One explanation is that low motivation or energy levels, as well as difficulty concentrating and planning, caused by many mental health issues may affect a person’s ability to take care of oneself including making it to medical appointments, adhering to medication regimens and maintaining healthy habits. In addition, healthcare professionals may not make the effort to offer social support to help those with mental health issues unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking or drinking, due to stigma and the assumption that they cannot make these changes. Those with mental health problems are also at risk for developing physical health problems because healthcare professionals may assume your physical symptoms are a part of your mental illness and not investigate them further, so they are less likely to receive medical help that might detect symptoms of physical health conditions earlier.

Physical health also has a significant impact on mental health. People with chronic illnesses have a higher risk of developing depression. In addition, many mental health disorders present with physical manifestations. However, the physical symptoms are often treated, but not the root cause of the problem, which further worsens the person’s underlying mental health issue due to lack of proper treatment. On a more positive note, taking care of your physical health improves overall mental health. Physical activity and healthy eating improve mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, stress, social withdrawal, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. In summary, good physical health leaves a person feeling mentally better about themselves in the long term.

So why is there less of an emphasis on mental health in comparison to physical health? For example, postpartum depression is a leading cause of maternal mortality in the US, accounting for up to 20% of all maternal deaths. Yet, due in part to a lack of education for healthcare providers, mothers across the country consistently report being screened for physical conditions like gestational diabetes and preeclampsia, but never postpartum depression or other maternal mental health disorders, leaving up to 75% of those affected to go untreated. Every 40 seconds, someone in the US suffers a stroke. Within approximately the same time interval, someone also dies by suicide in the US. Yet, we tend to put more emphasis on time in the treatment of stroke than on the treatment of acute suicidality, even though time is equally of the essence in saving the life of someone experiencing an acute mental health crisis.

So, what can we do about this imbalance between mental healthcare and physical healthcare? We should provide education to both the public and healthcare professionals that emphasizes the importance of mental health issues, the inseparable relationship between mental and physical health, and the necessity to narrow the large discrepancy between mental healthcare demand and supply. By prioritizing mental and physical health equally, we can reduce stigma and encourage more open discussions about important mental health issues that affect how we navigate the world daily. Lives have been lost, and even more lives are at stake due to mental health issues. Thus, a lack of education on important mental health topics in the medical field cannot be an excuse for insufficient mental healthcare.

Medicine involves the enhancement of health and quality of life via the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of illness. It is defined by promoting and maintaining well-being. Therefore, medicine should encompass both mental and physical healthcare equally, as distinct yet closely related entities that are both crucial to the holistic care of an individual. So, how will YOU care for your mental health to maintain your physical health, and care for your physical health to improve your mental health?

Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, Behavioral Health Initiative is proud to provide Supplemental Psychiatric Education for Primary Care (SPEPC) Program. You can access it on our SPEPC Landing Page . It is free of charge and CME credits are available.

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