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Mental, physical health closely intertwined

George Hodan/Public Domain Pictures

Though current research showing mental health and physical health affect each other in many ways has come a long way, there is still more progress that needs to be made to better understand these two closely connected areas of overall health.

Dr. John Campo joins us on "Take Care" to discuss. He's the chief behavioral wellness officer in the Rockefeller Neuroscience Institute and assistant dean for behavioral health professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine. Campo said mental and physical health cannot be approached in isolation.

“The thing that we know the most is that health really is a unitary construct that you really can’t and shouldn’t try to parse into a physical component and a mental component,” Campo said. “This dichotomy between physical health and emotional health or wellbeing is a false dichotomy.”

The traditional thinking surrounding mental disorders has been that they are purely psychological, but scientists have learned that there are some physical conditions that can make a person more vulnerable to developing mental conditions, Campo said. Physical disorders can develop psychological disorders, and vice versa.

“These are profoundly important public health problems that oftentimes have their underpinnings in what we tend to think about as mental disorders or addictions,” Campo said.

For example, mental disorders have increasingly negative physical effects on the body. For people with a serious mental illness, their life expectancy is reduced by about 15-30 years, Campo said.

“Not commonly known, but having a serious mental illness shortens your life, and it’s not just because these folks are more vulnerable to suicide,” Campo said.

Campo said public thought is making some progress in the way it approaches mental and physical health, but there is still a large barrier because of the stigma surrounding mental disorders, which has led to a double standard in the health care system.

“When we think about mental disorders, rather than thinking about them as public health disorders, I think we often tend to think about them more as socio-moral problems than health problems,” Campo said. “There’s been a separate system of care for physical health disorders and a parallel, and not as well-funded, system of care for mental disorders and addictions.”

Another place where this can be seen is in the consideration of cost-effectiveness, which Campo said receives more emphasis when mental health treatments are brought up than when physical health treatments are proposed. He said cost-effectiveness, though important, should not be the first priority.

“We’re applying a somewhat different standard to mental disorders and conditions that can have equally dire effects on morbidity and mortality,” Campo said.

The way to counteract this disparity is through education and awareness, Campo said, which can help get mental health the funding, attention and appreciation it deserves.

“We need to begin by changing how we think about it,” Campo said. “We’re starting to confront the whole issue of stigma, but it’s in the water. Even those of us who are in the field, our minds are filled with this.”