Physical and Mental Health For Wellness
What is Health?
The World Health Organization defined health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or illness. This definition describes several dimensions of health. The question is whether these different facets of health influence each other?
Medical Diseases but Mental Disorders
Medical conditions are considered diseases i.e., there is something wrong with the way the body is working. The patient describes the symptoms to the doctor who examines for typical signs and then may order tests and investigations to confirm a diagnosis. An example of this would be a diagnosis of diabetes or arthritis. The person has troubling symptoms, the doctor does an examination for specific signs and then requests tests to confirm. Mental health conditions on the other hand are not considered diseases but disorders as mental health problems affect the person’s life but may not have a test which is a firm diagnosis and there is no physical or bodily abnormality.
However, mental health professionals such as doctors and psychologists are trained to interview the person to get the relevant information to arrive at a diagnosis. The clients or patients may also get psychological tests and questionnaires done to assess the impact and severity of the problem. An example of this could be depression, where a number of symptoms such as sadness, poor sleep, changes in appetite etc. are carefully reviewed by the mental health professional. Questionnaires to assess the severity of the depression and to assess day-to-day functioning are highly recommended to establish the baseline severity and monitor treatment progress.
Just because mental health problems do not have a clear-cut bodily abnormality, does not mean that they are any less real. In fact, people consistently find mental distress much worse than physical pain.
Furthermore, mental health can affect physical health and the other way around.
Relationship between mental and physical health
When people have chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart problems, it also affects their mental health. They may develop symptoms of depression which affects their physical health, or their inability and motivation to participate in the treatment. For instance, people may not take the medications regularly or may find it difficult to follow any lifestyle changes recommended. The treatment of the mental health disorder would improve the quality of life and may also improve the overall ability to manage the physical health condition.
Research has also shown that people suffering chronic or recurrent depression and anxiety are more prone to physical illnesses such as diabetes and heart-related problems.
Trauma and PTSD can also affect physical health. Interestingly, lifestyle changes for physical health such as exercise and a nutritious diet may also improve mental health. In fact, moderate physical exercise 30 minutes 3 times a week is one of the treatment options for mild depression. Even with more severe forms of depression exercise can add to treatment with medications and evidence-based psychotherapy.
So, what do we do next?
We cannot put mental health and physical health in different boxes. They interact with each other. In fact, our experience of the pandemic has shown that worldwide mental health problems have increased both due to the direct effect of the virus and due to the pandemic restrictions. The person affected by chronic conditions such as diabetes, stroke, heart problems or neurological problems should receive proactive collaborative care which requires a good partnership between the medical doctors and mental health professionals who can help with the mental wellness needs. Evidence-based interventions, especially cognitive behavioural therapy have the best evidence in this area of concurrent physical and mental health problems.
About the Author:
Dr. Sanjay Rao is an experienced teacher and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Ottawa. In 2018, he was awarded a Fellowship of the Canadian Association of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for his contribution to CBT in Canada. He has received an award from the Department of Health, UK for CBT development. He is the Director of Unified CBT Academy and the Medical Director at the Center for Mental & Psychological Health. To find out more about Dr. Rao you can review his profile.