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Treating the Whole Person: How Overlooking Mental Health Can Lead to Physical Issues

Imagine being faced with constant worry and anxiety. Throughout your life, you’ve fret over what other people may feel are “the littlest things,” but these worries eventually fester, and you’re plagued with ongoing stomach aches, migraines or insomnia. As you grow older, activities like taking tests at school and even watching movies exacerbate your stress levels and one day, you’re shaking and struggling to breathe, seemingly out of nowhere. Scary, right?

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After urgent care staff x-rays you, gives you an electrocardiogram (EKG) and runs a myriad of extensive tests only to determine there’s “nothing wrong,” you become frustrated and incredibly discouraged while all of the symptoms persist. Overlooking mental health can lead to serious physical issues, and unfortunately, this happens entirely too often.

Oftentimes, health care only seeks to address the physical health of a person while separating out mental health and putting it in its own bucket. This approach makes receiving comprehensive and effective health care disjointed at best and completely unattainable at worst.

The ability to recognize symptoms and treat patients with mental health issues has become vital in today’s health care space. A patient’s behavioral health can have a massive impact on their quality of life. As a result, it’s becoming even more critical for primary care teams to be prepared to meet both physical and behavioral health needs.

Removing Barriers

In the U.S., behavioral health is often stigmatized. Many people still hold attitudes that view symptoms of mental or behavioral disorders as threatening and uncomfortable, fostering discrimination towards people with mental health issues. Worse yet, these social stigmas can lead to perceived or self-stigma, where the patient internalizes their perceptions of discrimination, which can significantly affect feelings of shame and lead to poorer treatment outcomes. If someone is condemned for attempting to deal with a behavioral health issue, they’ll either delay their search or curtail treatment completely. Delaying appropriate mental health care can be dangerous and can lead to a host of problems, including reduced productivity at work and increased diseases from other causes.

While completely eradicating societal stigma will be difficult, attempting to educate the public and raise awareness of mental health stigma and the detrimental affect this has on patients with mental health disorders will go a long way towards addressing the significant issue. We believe it is important to provide a platform that allows us to address all aspects of a person’s health, not just the physical, not just disease and illness, but the medical and mental well-being of that individual. This month, you will hear more about how  PeakMed is removing barriers and delivering access to both physical and mental care, allowing patients to maintain healthy lifestyles.

Healthy Mind + Healthy Spirit = Healthy Body

Once the barriers to receiving care are removed, health care professionals often continue to treat patients only for their physical conditions and not accompanying behavioral health conditions. And unfortunately, patients with behavioral health conditions, including mental health and substance abuse conditions, often repeatedly return to the doctor with physical problems related to the untreated behavioral condition — further driving up health care costs.

Consider a diabetic patient. Our providers know how to manage a diabetic patient, but when depression is added to the mix, it can be a massive barrier to improving their physical health.

We can teach a patient to check their sugar levels, we can offer medications, diet plans, exercise programs, but if the reason they don't want to follow through on these activities has to do with underlying anxiety or depression and we aren't addressing that fundamental problem, time is being wasted. Untreated behavioral issues prevent people from properly managing other chronic conditions — often worsening their physical symptoms.

Mental health problems also compound existing physical health problems and make it more difficult for individuals to care for themselves. In fact, according to a 2010 study, patients with chronic conditions such as diabetes, arthritis and heart disease are three times more likely to be suffering from depression. And while many individuals experience depression as a result of living with their chronic disease, some people develop depression as a result of biologic effects of their chronic illness.

Integrating mental health services into a primary care setting offers a viable and efficient way of ensuring that patients have access to quality mental health services. Since a large percentage of primary care visits are driven by psychosocial factors, it makes sense to connect mental and physical health care in one, familiar, easy-to-access place, through a team that is prepared to meet the entire range of those needs.

When health care providers treat underlying mental health conditions instead of just the physical symptoms, patients tend to be healthier, happier and often require fewer health care services.