Ophelie Martin, Communications Officer at Mental Health Europe shares insights on the link between physical and mental health, illustrating facts with her own personal story.
According to the World Health Organization, “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” 1 The medical community has known for a long time that physical and mental health problems are intertwined, and that is why the global health community emphasises the mantra: there can be no health without mental health. Yet, as this article seeks to show, while this fact is known, it is not born out in practice by many health professionals as well as health care systems around the world.
We now know that people with long term physical diseases are twice as likely to have some kind of mental health issue. The prevalence of major depression is consistently higher for persons with physical illness, and yet, it has been estimated that while 25% of all individuals with cancer are depressed only 2% 2 receive treatment for depression. Researchers 3 have also found that mental issues are directly associated to a number of somatic diseases, such as asthma, pulmonary problems, musculoskeletal disorders (such as arthritis), neurological diseases and chronic pain conditions. The connection seems to be reciprocal: chronic somatic diseases often result in serious health problems and vice versa.
More alarmingly, people living with severe problems such as schizophrenia, major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder report poorer physical health in general and have shorter life expectancy than those without mental health conditions 4. These facts alone should encourage health professionals and decision-makers to address the link between mental and physical health more effectively.
Once people experiencing mental health problems are diagnosed with a certain condition, they tend to be labelled as “mentally ill” which can sometimes have unintended life-altering consequences. It must be acknowledged that the stigma around mental ill health is also experienced in today’s health care systems, because of lack of knowledge and appropriate training of health professionals on how to treat those affected by both mental and physical health problems.
Poor treatment or lack of treatment for physical health for those with mental health problems is a lived reality for many. My own personal story can illustrate how serious stigma against people with these problems within the medical community can drastically change their health prospects. My father, a 63-year old loving family man diagnosed with bipolar disorders and schizophrenia, went to his GP many times constantly complaining of severe stomach pain. His GP was aware of his condition and wrongly assumed the pain was linked to his mental health problems and as a result failed to examine him properly. A few months later, my father died from pancreatic cancer, in part due to the fact that it was not diagnosed in a timely fashion by his GP. His GP repeatedly reassured him that it “would get better”. I have asked myself this question over the years: would my father’s GP have treated a person without mental health problems, who had presented consistently with stomach pain, in the same manner? This is just one single example among other unacceptable and heart breaking stories from across Europe and beyond.
Research 5 has highlighted the ‘treatment gap’ for people with mental health problems – 9 out of 10 individuals’ experiencing mental illness worldwide are not able to access appropriate care and treatment. A recent Quality Watch Report 6 shows that too often a person’s mental health care is collected in isolation of their physical health care. This too often results in the physical health needs of people with mental health ill-health remaining unidentified. How can this treatment gap be addressed? What can we do to combat stigma and promote a better understanding of mental health?
Mental Health Europe believes that health is not only a medical concern but also a human rights issue. If the link between mental and physical health is not properly addressed then health systems cannot respond to the health needs of rights holders, thus depriving them of their right to the highest attainable standards of health as outlined in Article 12 of the UN Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
To address the link between mental and physical health efficiently, a variety of training, educational and awareness-raising programmes targeted at health professionals, carers and volunteers in the community should be launched and supported by both national and EU financial instruments. To avoid additional health problems and misdiagnoses, greater investment in health promotion and disease prevention should be emphasised especially in the case of individuals who already have mental or chronic physical difficulties.
MHE is working together with members to ensure that mental health is high on the agenda at European and national levels, advocating for the human rights, social inclusion and access to healthcare of people with these problems. One in 4 people in the world will be affected by mental health problems at some point in their lives. Health systems must be prepared to address comorbidity of mental and physical ill-health as well as the treatment gap for persons with mental health problems. If some of the above actions, particularly training for health professionals, had been implemented when my father attended at his GP the very first time he felt that something was not right, the care he received could have saved his life.
Mental Health Europe is an umbrella organisation which represents associations, organisations and individuals active in the field of mental health and well-being in Europe, including (ex) users of mental health services, service providers volunteers and professionals. Mental Health Europe envisions a Europe where people with mental health problems live as full citizens with access to appropriate services and support, where positive mental health and well- being are given high priority in the political spectrum and on the European health and social agenda, and where meaningful participation is guaranteed at all levels of decision-making.
Mental Health Europe