On the connection between physical health and mental health

CW/TW: depression, suicide, cancer, long term illness

I was inspired to write this blog after having a tough time with both my physical and mental health recently. A few months ago I had a flu-type virus which meant I was unable to work for two weeks. Because of this, not only did I suffer physical effects such as tiredness and low energy, but I felt even more useless than usual; “if I’m not well enough to work, what’s the point? I’m no good to anyone.” I admit that I struggled with not only the usual negative thoughts that come with depression, but at some points I felt lower than I have done in a long while. It also happened to come at a time where I was struggling with work; stress and my ongoing depression was having an impact on my ability to focus, and I felt very stuck on a particular piece of work I had to complete. All these issues were piling on top of one another, and I began to question if I should be continuing… With work, with life… It was a scary time. I can confidently say I’m out of the worst of it, and although it may seem like a sad and negative situation, it has given me something to write about with passion.

“Physical health” and “mental health”… What do these phrases have in common? Perhaps the most obvious commonality is that they are both concerned with health, which has an impact on our overall sense of well-being. With this in mind, should we treat them separately? Should we prioritise one over the other? You may already have answers to these questions, but please read on for my opinion and some facts about how physical and mental health and intrinsically linked.

Now, in terms of definitions: physical health is about your body and how well it is functioning; similarly, mental health refers to how your mind functions. This does not necessarily mean that they should be thought of as separate entities; instead, they should be viewed as aspects of the human being that exist and work alongside each other – or sometimes against each other.

Previously, physical healthcare has remained very separate from mental health services. It has also been the case that physical health conditions are more commonly and openly treated than mental health conditions. This is perhaps due to the unnecessary stigma around mental health conditions (Mental Health Foundation); although these days, it is encouraging to see that mental health is being more openly talked about, particularly in the online world (in my experience, anyway). Despite this, there is more funding for research on physical health conditions than mental health conditions (MQ). In their report, mental health organisation MQ state that:

“…just over £9 [is] spent on research per year, for each person affected by mental illness. By comparison, £612 million is spent on cancer research each year, which translates to £228 per person affected – or 25 times more per person.”

This is a worrying finding, and shows the inequality between physical and mental health research. We can, of course, acknowledge that cancer is an understandable cause for concern amongst the public, given the diagnosis and mortality rates reported by Cancer Research UK and the Office for National Statistics (ONS). However, mental illness should also be a huge cause for concern – in 2017, suicide was confirmed as the cause of 5,821 deaths in the UK (ONS); perhaps this number is not as high as those reported for deaths caused by cancer, but it is a huge number nonetheless, and one we should seriously be working on reducing.

And so, on to the connection between physical and mental health…

Physical health may affect mental health, and mental health may affect physical health. For example, experiencing a long term physical illness such as diabetes may lead to developing symptoms such as low mood and fatigue, due to the chronic and relentless nature of the physical condition. It has been reported that two-thirds of people with a long term physical health condition will also have a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety (NHS England). Even less “serious” physical health conditions, such as the common cold (or the flu, as mentioned in my introduction), can make us feel a bit rubbish about ourselves.

Similarly, people with mental health conditions such as depression may struggle with finding the motivation to exercise, for example, which can have a detrimental impact on their physical health (this is something I know very well from experience). In terms of research evidence, some studies report that serious mental health conditions may reduce life expectancy by between 10-20 years (Oxford University) – which is a truly shocking finding.

The connection between physical and mental health is strong, and there is an increasing demand for physical healthcare to incorporate psychological treatment, and vice versa. Organisations that are part of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapy (IAPT) programme in England are increasingly expanding their services to provide support to people who live with long term physical health conditions.

Integrating physical health and mental health services is an excellent way of promoting overall well-being for people who use these services. Not only will this integration improve outcomes for service users, but it would also be financially beneficial for our strained healthcare providers (The King’s Fund).

The bottom line for me is that we should be looking at our health and treating illness in a holistic manner; we should be considering the whole person, rather than splitting health into strictly separate categories.

For more on this subject, I would recommend dipping into the following links:

Mental Health Foundation – Physical and Mental Health

MQ – How does mental illness impact our physical body?

The King’s Fund – The connection between mental and physical health

Science Daily – Body and mind need care in mental illness

Thanks so much for taking the time to read this post. Please feel free to leave a comment; let me know if there’s anything I haven’t made clear, or if you have any thoughts you want to add!

2 thoughts on “On the connection between physical health and mental health

  1. Another really good article. You should approach some of the health magazines to see if you can get your stuff published x

    Like

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