I’ve been working in the mental health world for over five years now, and before that experienced mental health problems of my own. This experience means I’ve learnt quite a lot about the subject and the one thing that keeps coming up is that the way mental and physical health intertwine and relate still isn’t being fully understood by those ‘in charge’.
And I guess when I say those ‘in charge’, what I mean is the government, NHS and professionals who should really know better.
For so long, as a nation, we were transfixed with physical health. The wellness and fitness industry boomed and we suddenly all wanted to learn how to make a green juice and take better care of ourselves.
Then in recent years (and especially after the Royals founded Heads Together) mental health started taking the limelight. We talked and talked about talking, we shared our stories, we learned more and started to take mental health more seriously.
Now, we are in a slightly strange place. Mental and physical health are competing for attention, with a growing pressure on us to be ‘well’ in every sense of the word.
On one hand, we seem to be understanding more and more the way our mental and physical health relate. We know that exercise can relieve stress. More studies are showing the impact of nutrition on our mental health and there seems to be more awareness of the fact that yes – our mental health can be improved when we look after our physical health too.
This is great, because our mental and physical health is often linked and the more we know about this, the better. But it’s equally important to know this is not always the case.
There is still a bias in the minds of professionals towards physical health.
Why the physical health bias is a problem
I keep hearing stories about people with eating disorders not receiving treatment until they hit a certain point on the BMI chart, effectively encouraging them to lose more weight in a desperate attempt to get help.
I remember clearly when I was in treatment for my eating disorder being made aware that I did not hit all the criteria for anorexia – I felt like a failure, like I didn’t deserve help.
More recently I’ve seen stories in the news saying children will be weighed in schools to help prevent obesity. How is it that we can know so much about the importance of mental health and still think this is a good idea?
In my experience at least, many mental illnesses grow in the space left where self-belief and self-worth are taken away.
Whether it’s taken away by our parents, bullies at school, abusers or society as a whole – when we lack self-worth, we’re left with a gaping space. We don’t believe we’re worthy, we start to hate ourselves and for some of us mental illness takes root and flourishes.
And guess what? Giving priority to physical health or diagnosing mental illnesses with physical criteria is not the answer.
What is the answer?
We need to work on filling the space with self-worth, self-belief and compassion. We need to understand the delicate and varied relationship between mental and physical health. We need greater understanding from the people we trust with our bodies and minds.
Us humans are so much more than our ‘health’. We are complicated, unique beings with a multitude of needs, wants and desires. Instead of leading with one distorted picture of health, let’s lead with the individual. Let’s take the time to understand what they need to thrive, both physically and mentally.
Let’s look at the whole picture – I’m sure this is the only way things will change.
And of course, I’m not naive enough to think this is an easy ask. Let’s face it, I’m one person, sitting behind a laptop screen – it’s pretty easy for me to sit here on my sofa preaching my own ideas. I’ll never understand the complexities that lie within the NHS or how government initiatives are created.
I just know that what we’re doing isn’t working. There’s movement in the right direction, but every now and then we seem to take a huge step backwards. There’s a lot of talk, little action and seemingly less understanding.
I can only hope that in time the talk will change to redress the balance, action will increase and understanding will improve.
Very interested to hear your thoughts on this – especially if you feel your physical health has been prioritised over mental health and how this has affected you.
I’m also shifting uncomfortably in my seat these days wanting to take more action. Writing and raising awareness is great, and I hope that through my coaching practice I’ll be able to do my small part to help fill the gap when self-belief is taken away, but I’m keen to know what else I can do. So if you have any thoughts on this – I’m all ears.
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