Research shows that mental and physical health are deeply intertwined. So why do we keep separating the two?
We’ve been conditioned to think of our bodies as the focal point of two types of health: physical and mental. However, the separation of these two vital aspects of our health is mainly artificial—it presumes that our health problems can be easily categorized, with one “type of health” having nothing to do with another. Yet research shows that up to 50% of cancer patients suffer from a mental illness, especially depression and anxiety. Similarly, in patients who are depressed, the risk of having a heart attack is more than twice as high as in the general population.
Physical disability is one example of a health challenge that is rarely discussed in the context of mental health and mental wellbeing. As a result, we have not seen much discussion on how disability can affect mental health and vice versa.
By bridging the connection between our mind and our body—by embracing their inseparable nature—we can recognize how much more complex our lives are and how unacceptable it is to negate or degrade the importance of one, mind or body, in favor of another. Such thinking is detrimental to the wellbeing of people who do not fit into a neat box of someone who has either a physical disability or mental illness. The divide also forces people to continue hiding their challenges of living with a physical disability by bottling up their stress, anxiety, and depression.
The World Health Organization defines mental health as a state of wellbeing in which every individual:
- realizes his or her own potential
- can cope with the normal stresses of life
- can work productively and fruitfully, and
- is able to make a contribution to her or his community.
Mental wellbeing doesn’t have to be confined to a specific diagnosis but, rather, to the way we cope with daily challenges, and our resilience.
Mental wellbeing doesn’t have to be confined to a specific diagnosis but, rather, to the way we cope with daily challenges, and our resilience. Physical disability in general and spinal cord injury in particular can jeopardize one’s wellbeing by creating both internal (i.e. pain and secondary health conditions) and external (i.e. societal attitudes, accessibility) barriers. Other barriers can include but are not limited to:
- Concerns about housing, employment, financial issues
- Self-esteem/body image/identity
- Lack of and/or loss of personal connections and support
This by far is not an exhaustive list of points that demonstrate the connection between our physical and mental health. We know systemic changes that tackle the issues of accessible and affordable housing, poverty, and unemployment are also a vital part of the solution. But this is a good place to start.