But there really does seem to be a connection between mental and physical health.
Can physical health problems cause mental issues?
Yes! Of course, injuries and infections can mess with our brains directly, but sometimes the stress of being unwell can drag our mental well-being down as well. For example, painful conditions like shingles can lead to a person becoming depressed. Cancer patients often need a lot of psychological support as they go through anxieties and stresses of their illness. Just feeling rotten physically or limited, especially for a long period of time, drags our emotions down as well.
Can mental health problems cause physical health issues?
Again yes, sometimes in ways that are not well understood. For instance, people with schizophrenia have a much higher incidence of Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Schizophrenics are about five times as likely to be heavy smokers, and that has a big impact on their health and, sadly, tends to shorten their life. People with mental health problems sometimes lack the motivation to exercise, eat well and take care of themselves. Sometimes they also lack the money to buy themselves healthier food options.
Can mental health be improved by improving our physical health?
A much louder yes! We are a ‘whole package’ – mind and body interacting together. There can be huge benefits from counselling and medicines, but mental health workers know that sometimes the best improvements come when someone starts walking a few kilometres a day, or playing a sport, or getting on a bike or going to the gym. Do the benefits come from being active rather than just isolated at home? Do they come from the fact we are being socially active and mixing with people? Do they come from the wonderfully good feeling of making progress and taking control of our life? Could the benefits come from the ‘endorphins’ released as we experience the pleasure of physical activity? Or are they due to the fact that our body is stronger and fitter and somehow that makes our brain healthier too? Probably… all of the above!
You wouldn’t normally think of them as being ‘mental health strategies’ but maybe your mood would lift if you got your teeth fixed, or you walked past the burger place and into the veggie shop instead, or went for a walk, or asked your doctor for a ‘green prescription’ to go to a gym, or sold the Playstation and bought a Fit-bit instead, or got yourself the best exercise piece of exercise equipment ever… a dog!