Plain Language Summary: The Interconnectedness of Physical and Mental Health

Physical and mental health are connected to each other. They also influence each other. Research shows people who have physical problems or illnesses often experience mental health conditions as well. It is important to consider both aspects of health when a person seeks treatment. This is also known as holistic care.

Health professionals (either medical doctors or mental health clinicians) do not always use holistic care. Sometimes doctors focus more on physical than mental health symptoms. They can mistakenly believe that a mental health condition does not need its own treatment, and that it will go away when the physical issue does. Likewise, mental health clinicians can focus more on treating a mental health condition than a physical condition. This can leave the physical condition without proper treatment.

Physical and mental health conditions can worsen each other. Mental health conditions can begin to affect physical health and create an illness. For example, depression can lead to poor physical health and eventually diabetes. Then, the stress of managing diabetes can increase feelings of depression. Alternatively, someone with a painful physical condition is likely to develop a mental health condition over time. That can make it more difficult to manage the physical illness. These cycles may continue over time, making the person’s symptoms worse.

Healthcare in America is becoming more holistic, but diagnostic overshadowing is still a problem for people with disabilities. Diagnostic overshadowing is when a health professional incorrectly uses the person’s disability to explain symptoms that are caused by a different issue. This can also happen when individuals have a mental health concern with and without disabilities. Professionals can incorrectly use the mental health condition to explain their patient’s symptoms. When this happens, doctors believe it is “all in their heads”. This can keep the patient from receiving the right treatment. Because diagnostic overshadowing happens when someone has either a disability or a mental health condition, it is even more likely if a person has both.

Health professionals who treat people with disabilities and/or people with mental health conditions need to use holistic care. When making treatment plans, it is important that the patient’s physical and mental health concerns are considered. This is to prevent a downward cycle of worsening symptoms between mental and physical health. Holistic care will also help patients get the treatment they need.

For more information, read The Interconnectedness of Physical and Mental Health fact sheet.

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