Why We Need to Talk About the Overlap Between Physical and Mental Health

Every field in medicine is unique and different. If you’re having vision problems, you see an eye doctor, an optometrist or ophthalmologist. If your heart isn’t working well, you go to a cardiologist. For your blood, you see a hematologist. For your brain, you see a neurologist, or a psychiatrist. For some reason, psychiatry seems to have this extra separation that other body systems don’t have. Mental health is treated differently than eye health, or heart health, or even neurological health. Individuals are treated with a bias and shame that they never asked for, and don’t deserve. I believe individuals with physical ailments are often seen and treated as strong, courageous, warriors by society — which they absolutely are — but people with mental illness are seen and treated as weak, insignificant and “quitters,” instead of the fighters they really are.

Here’s my point. Physical and mental health aren’t actually as different as they’re perceived to be, and individuals battling mental illness deserve 100 percent of the same community respect and support as those with physical illness. In fact, physical illness has been shown to be a largely contributing factor in mental illness. A large amount of lymphatic structures were recently found present in the brain by researchers at the University of Virginia, with researchers stating that “The brain and the adaptive immune system were thought to be isolated from each other, and any immune activity in the brain was perceived as sign of a pathology. And now, not only are we showing that they are closely interacting, but some of our behavior traits might have evolved because of our immune response to pathogens.” Additionally, vitamin D deficiency may be correlated with depression, and many physical illnesses have known mental health symptoms.

There are entire conditions with known physical causes that don’t have any “physical” symptoms, such as a misplaced joint. Many conditions once thought to be entirely associated with mental health without any physical components are now being shown to have physical illness correlations and possibly even causes. Additionally, many physical conditions with many documentable physical symptoms also have mental health symptoms that are known to be co-occurring. For example, Lupus, which can cause anemia and rashes, may also cause anxiety.

Psychiatry is defined as, “the study and treatment of mental illness, emotional disturbance and abnormal behavior.” Cardiology is defined as, “The medical study of the structure, function and disorders of the heart.” What’s the difference? Psychiatry is related to the brain, and cardiology is related to the heart. Otherwise, they’re really the same thing. They’re just different branches of medicine, but they do come from the same tree. Psychiatry is still just as much of a branch of medicine as anything else. So we are we treating at as if it’s in an entirely different forest, halfway across the world?

We’re treating it differently because of stigma. We’re treating it differently because I believe society wants to pull the wool over their own eyes and tell themselves mental health is some faraway thing, with no risk of hurting them or their loved ones. I would love to be able to say that’s true, but it simply isn’t. There are many correlations between physical and mental health, and more research is being done on it constantly. Childhood trauma has been linked to chronic illnesses, and not just ones that were directly caused by the trauma itself. Many people say that physical complaints from those with mental health conditions are all somatic, and while in some cases that may be true, not every physical symptom caused by mental illness is somatic. 

It’s 2017. It’s time for us to pull ourselves together and recognize the unspoken overlap between physical and mental health so that we can do something about it to help those people. I’m not just talking to the medical professionals, and I’m not just talking to society. I’m talking to you. You, whatever your story, whatever your health situation, whatever your profession, whatever your financial status, whatever your religion, whatever your race, whatever you gender, whatever your passion, whatever your age, whatever your personality, whatever and whoever you are, I’m talking to you. You can always start making a difference, and your first step can impact someone else’s. We can make a difference, so why not start now?

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Thinkstock photo via evtushenko_ira.

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