September 27, 2019
by Tina Arnoldi
“Physical Health May Suffer in People With Mental Disorders” according to a recent paper published in The Lancet, which argued that physical health is often overlooked in favor of addressing mental health. The study found that the shorter life expectancy for people with mental illness is not due to suicide, but rather from physical health issues such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. The conclusion is that there is more work to do to prioritize physical health issues for people who are struggling with a mental health issue. Considering that conclusion, I asked experts how providers can better prioritize physical health for patients with mental health disorders and the role of professionals outside of the health profession.
Kellie Blake with NutriSense Nutrition Consulting is a registered dietitian in an acute care psychiatric facility. She believes “there is no true healing from mental health symptoms without addressing the health of the entire body. Many mental health symptoms are actually created by poor nutrition and chronic disease. We must stop separating the brain from the rest of the body.”
Fortunately, there are very practical ways to enhance physical health, such as better nutrition. Blake says inpatient facilities can start by improving the food being served to mental health clients. “The food served is often of poor quality, highly refined and high in sugar and unhealthy types of fat, all of which exacerbate mental health symptoms,” says Blake. “For outpatient clients, referring them to credentialed nutrition professionals who can help with determining nutrient deficiencies and improving nutrient intake is vital.”
“It is easy to get focused on the acute condition, mental health, and neglect physical conditions that may exist,” said Lisa Richards, a nutritionist. “But in doing so, these individuals will most likely take in calorie-dense and low nutrient meals which may exacerbate their mental conditions along with physical ailments.”
Paul Corona, MD who started as a family doctor, transitioned to psychiatry full-time in 2000. Awareness of this relationship between physical health and mental health played a big role in his decision to transition. “Stress brings on a lot of symptoms including headaches, neck and back pain, joint pains such as fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel syndrome,” said Corona. Since mental health concerns, such as stress, can bring on additional physical health problems, it furthers the argument that physical and mental conditions needed to be treated together.
Corona adds, “If psychotropic medications are done right, sometimes with a combination, it can improve the physical as well as emotional symptoms.” In addition to psychotropic medications, he stresses the importance of a regular exercise program and a well-balanced diet since “for many people, depression and anxiety are very physical.”
While physical health problems may come as a result of mental health conditions or in conjunction with the treatment of them, Adina Mahalli, MSW also stresses the need to note pre-existing physical conditions when treating someone for mental health disorders. While Mahalli cautions that “therapists should be careful about giving health advice outside of their domain, she believes providers “should encourage clients to think critically about their eating and exercise habits and to consult with the appropriate professionals.”
Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist, agrees with this and is careful to work within her domain. “I routinely ask clients to have an assessment by their physicians to rule out underlying medical issues,” says Manly. She also checks in with them about their general health including diet, exercise, and overall wellness.