Usually, when we say talking care of ourselves, we think of eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, staying current on medical exams and checkups, and getting proper sleep. And what a good list it is! But take another look at it – it’s all about the body. We tend to overlook our mental health when we think about taking care of ourselves. So, why should we care about our mental well-being?
The Mind-Body Connection
It’s essential to remember that the good things we do for our bodies are also beneficial for our minds. Sometimes, a home-cooked meal or goodnight’s sleep is just what we need to shake a lingering sadness or worry, and there’s nothing like exercise to work through anxiety or anger. But it works the other way too.
Even a relatively minor untreated mental disorder can have negative effects on physical health. People suffering from mental illness may inadvertently neglect their diets and other healthy habits. Mental illness often causes sleep disruption and can even impact the functioning of the immune system, making people more susceptible to and less able to fight illness and infection.
Mental Symptoms Impact Our Physical Health
Doctors who see patients with both physical and psychological complaints often only address the physical issues, expecting that they are the root cause of both problems. But, treating underlying mental health issues can have a positive effect on physical health. A 2003 study found that patients with depression and arthritis – both common issues in older adults – experienced decreased physical pain, improved physical function, and higher quality of life after receiving antidepressants to improve their mental health.
Less Strain on the Family
Mental illness affects families as well as individuals. The children of people with mental illness are at greater risk for abuse, neglect, and a wide range of emotional and behavioral issues. Since they can’t look to their parents for help, and they often isolate themselves from friends, many don’t receive needed social support. In many cases, the effects carry over into adulthood, driving children to seek mental health treatment of their own.
Other family members are likewise affected. Loved ones often report financial strain, job loss, and their own psychological problems as a result of trying to help their mentally ill family member. For this reason, recovery should be a process undertaken by the entire family so that both the individual and their loved ones learn new skills at the same time.
Improved Productivity and Financial Stability
As a result of dependence on disability income, leaves of absence from work, lost earning potential and the high costs of mental health treatment, individuals with untreated mental health disorders may face significant economic struggles. Some end up foreclosing on their homes, declaring bankruptcy or homeless or incarcerated after trying to manage a mental illness.
In a 2003 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 70 percent of those with mental illness had an annual income of $20,000 or less, and 20 percent lived on just $5,000 per year. Similarly, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people suffering from a serious mental illness earned at least 40 percent less than people in good mental health.
For those who are able to maintain employment, research shows a link between mental health disorders and reduced productivity. The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 200 million work days are lost each year due to depression alone, and five out of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental health problems. People who struggle with anxiety and depression are more likely to take sick leave repeatedly and for long periods of time (over 90 days), according to a 2012 study by researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
A Longer, Happier Life
According to a 2012 study in the British Medical Journal, people with even mild mental health problems may have a lower life expectancy. Those with the highest levels of depression or anxiety had a risk of death that increased a whopping 94 percent, most often related to heart disease.
People with mental health problems, especially mild symptoms of anxiety or depression, often fly under the radar of physicians and mental health professionals — typically at great cost to individuals, families and the public. Even if you’re able to work, fulfill family responsibilities and otherwise function in daily life, mental health problems can have serious consequences.
Good health is about more than caring for the body. Because caring for your mind as well as your body means you’ll not only live longer but better. It is now easier than ever before to add mental health to your self-care checklist. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, or would simply like to know more about available mental health care options, talk to your doctor.