Mental and physical health’s necessary balancing act

By:

Aug 24, 2021

At the recent Tokyo Summer Olympics, fan favorite and 2016 all-around gymnastics champion Simone Biles raised eyebrows by stepping back from much of the competition to prioritize her mental health. While many people on Twitter took umbrage with her withdrawal, many others also praised Biles for her choice, saying it’s about time people took athletes’ mental health seriously. 

Biles’ choice highlighted the connection between physical and mental health. By prioritizing her mental health, Biles ensured her physical safety throughout the Games. However, healthcare in the US still has a ways to go in fully embracing mental health needs as an integral part of healthcare. If the healthcare industry wants to help people balance their physical and mental health in the best way possible, the two need to be addressed together.  

Mental health takes a physical toll

Despite the interplay between the two, the systems for treating mental and physical health typically operate independently from one another. On top of that, between a shortage of mental health professionals and the stigma around mental health care, millions of people can (and do) go without necessary mental health care each year. 

An example of the close relationship between physical and mental health is how depression and chronic illness interact. According to the Cleveland Clinic, one third of people with a chronic illness subsequently develop depression. This relationship has several potential causes, including chronic illness’s impact on brain chemistry, side effects from medication, illness-related stress and anxiety, pain, and fatigue. 

But the relationship isn’t one sided; depression itself is a chronic illness with its own physical impacts such as pain, fatigue, a weakened immune system, and an increased risk of heart attack. Many physical symptoms of depression are symptoms of several chronic illnesses, making it difficult to detect their true cause. Adding to this complexity is the fact that not everyone suffers from a chronic illness the same way, nor does everyone suffer from depression the same way.  

It’s important to understand the connection between physical and mental health—without that understanding, providers cannot fully address their patients’ health status.  

Integrating to address physical and mental needs

When it comes to addressing two different, yet connected, aspects of healthcare, providers need to find better ways of integrating both types of care as they interact with patients. Physical and mental health needs can be treated separately, and usually are. But separate treatment is often not the best strategy. It’s hard for primary care providers to ensure that their patients are receiving necessary behavioral health care, or that the care provided will improve their physical well-being. And with the two being so intricately intertwined, acting as if they are wholly separate entities can ignore crucial interdependencies between the two.

While the connection between physical and mental health is clear, the actual coordination of care between the two is not well-defined, and this leads to suboptimal outcomes for patients. Even where primary care providers screen their patients for mental health concerns, the two are generally cared for by separate specialties. Coordination between the two has proven to be more of a challenge than expected.  

However, there are an increasing number of health systems that are meeting this challenge by integrating mental health into their traditional workflows. For example, the Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), a health system in Massachusetts, fully integrates mental health care into their primary care clinics. Behavioral health specialists are hired as part of their primary care teams, and are integrated into existing patient-provider relationships. The coordinated effort to address mental and behavioral needs tailors care to each individual patient depending on their circumstances. 

By integrating mental health into their primary care clinics, CHA can ensure their patients are receiving the exact care they need on all fronts. Primary care providers are able to track patients’ progress as it pertains to both physical and mental health benchmarks, with a focus on total health management and education. And by treating all areas of care under one roof, providers are able to help reduce the stigma associated with accessing mental healthcare, thus enabling more patients to actually seek out mental and behavioral health to begin with. 

Simone Biles is currently being lauded as a champion for mental health, and for good reason. Even now, it’s rare for a celebrity to so publicly open up about mental health struggles; by doing so, Biles is telling millions of people it is okay to seek out mental health care when they need it. While mental health remains in the forefront of people’s minds, providers should take advantage of the conversation and figure out how to best integrate it into their practices to better serve their patients. 

Jessica is a research associate at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, where she focuses on business model innovation in healthcare, including new approaches to population health management and person-centered care delivery.