Mental Health & Physical Illness–Two Sides, One Coin

This post was written as an introduction for my guest hosting gig at the Mental Health Online Support chat (Twitter hashtag #MHON).  I’ll be hanging out there and chatting on Wednesday, November 9th at 12:00 (noon) EST.  Please feel free to stop by.  And if you’ve never done a Tweet chat, let me know–I can walk you through it.  🙂

I wrote a post a few weeks back about the fact that “whole people deserve whole health care.”  This is a fundamental idea behind my therapy practice.  I believe that our minds, bodies and spirits are deeply connected, and that when one part of ourselves is under siege, the rest of us is affected as well.  So, when we’ve been diagnosed with cancer, or diabetes, or lupus, or infertility, or ALS, and so on–we experience grief and fear and anger and anxiety.  Treating those is as essential to our health as treating the disease we’re diagnosed with.

People are not built out of discrete parts.  We can’t treat our bodies for illness and expect our minds and emotions to be untouched.  And sometimes, I think that reality takes people by surprise.  Some physicians have done an excellent job of preparing themselves to cope with the psychosocial experiences that their patients may face.  But others–because of deficits in training or their understanding of medicine as being a purely physical discipline–may not be talking to their patients about the emotional struggles that may be part of their treatment and recovery process.

My experiences online have convinced me that people are hungry to have this connection realized.  I was a guest expert at the breast cancer resource site Talk About Health to talk about the emotional and mental health aspects of breast cancer.  I don’t have the most recent metrics, but during the day that I answered questions, nearly 1500 people read my answers.  The folks at Talk About Health said that my session was their third busiest ever.  Participants in Tweet chats like #ppdchat (for post-partum depression), #bcsm (for breast cancer patients & survivors), and #mhsm (mental health and social media)–just to name a few–have all mentioned feeling isolated, unheard, or even silenced.  I’ve heard people say things like, “Someone told me to just “think positive.” or “No one explained that I might feel angry when treatment was over.” or “Why didn’t my doctor tell me the warning signs of post-partum depression?”

For today, I’m not going to try to break down all of the reasons that our medical system often treats mental & physical health as separate.  That would make this post much longer than anyone wants to read.  Instead, what I’m going to do is issue an invitation.  If you (or someone you love & care for) have been diagnosed with a serious illness, this invitation is for you.  If you’re in the middle of treatment, this invitation is for you.  If you’ve made it through treatment and are finding that there wasn’t any magic path to your life before diagnosis, this invitation is for you.  And if you’re perfectly healthy, but you want to be better prepared for a time when you might not be, this invitation is for you.

So here’s the invitation.  Sometime today, I’m inviting you to sit down with yourself.  Check in, take stock.  How does your body feel?  What’s your energy level? What feelings are you experiencing?  Are you dealing with any persistent or intrusive thoughts?  What’s going on in your life that gives you a sense of meaning or purpose?  You can do this check-in as a conversation with yourself, or you can write it down in a journal or blog.

Here’s the purpose of this exercise.  It’s a reminder to view yourself as a whole person, to realize that you may be experiencing pain or struggle on multiple levels.  And my hope for you is that you choose to honor and nourish all of those levels.  To seek out whatever support you need: from loved ones, from faith communities, from therapists, from friends.  To recognize that physical illness creates emotional stress, and that you need and deserve support on every level.

Please feel free to share ideas and resources about connecting with your whole self in the comments.

Photo Credit: by Ancient Art

7 thoughts on “Mental Health & Physical Illness–Two Sides, One Coin

  1. Yes! I wholeheartedly agree with you! I very much try to treat the entire person (the point behind my “wellness wednesday” posts on my blog), and this is an integral part of my practice. As often as possible, I try to engage physicians in discussions to help them to see why it is important for them to be considered about the mental side as well! Great post:)

    1. Karolina,

      Thank you so much for stopping by! I’ve gotten to read several of your “Wellness Wednesdays” posts, and really enjoyed them. I think that in general, the more we support whole health integration, the healthier we’ll all be. So glad to have your voice in the conversation.


  2. this is right on target. i see it in my life, with my children and in the lives of my patients. i love the idea of checking in with ourselves and honoring and nourishing the whole person. and it is hard to do because so much of health care is fragmented and rushed. when psychologists and mental health practitioners support this practice we help our patients understand what they need and how to ask for it from other providers.

    also we remind ourselves to take care of our own whole person : )

    i am really enjoying reading your blog. very inspiring. best, allison,

    1. Allison,

      I appreciate the perspective that treating whole people reminds us to care for our own “whole person” needs. In fact that would be one of my hopes for helping professionals of all types–that we remember that we also have needs to meet. And the fragmentation of healthcare is one of the issues that fires me up. I think that we need to be vocal and persistent about a more integrated system of care.


  3. Well said, Ann. I think the medical community is catching up to this concept. For example, in my community, the medical professionals are now referring people to our local cancer support center and referring people to me to get support during cancer treatment and after treatment is done. I am so grateful for this, because it is absolutely necessary to take care of the mental, emotional, and social aspects as well as the physical when one has been diagnosed with an illness. Thanks for your great posts!

    1. Dawn,

      That’s fantastic to hear. I’m so glad that your medical community is collaborating with you to support your patients’ whole health. I couldn’t agree with you more about the need to deal with emotional and mental health as a component of treating physical illness.


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