Dr. Robin: Why is mental health different than physical health?

October 3, 2020

Every year many of us make sure we do things to take care of our physical health. As a female, we go for an annual gynecological appointment and mammogram. We see our dentists twice for cleaning and a check up. We get an annual flu shot. We visit our dermatologists and our ophthalmologists. This list is likely similar to your own steps to care for your physical health. We do all these things, making them a priority on our “to do” lists, because we know that by taking a proactive approach to physical health, we can maintain our health and catch any potential health threats early, when it is easier to address them.

So where on your list of important health “check ins” is your appointment with a therapist?

{crickets chirping in the background}

The majority of people seem to consider the maintenance of mental health from two perspectives. The first perspective is based on mental health as a side benefit of activities which are focused on physical health. For example, for those of you who work out, why do you? The common response is usually in the realm of “to keep my body/heart healthy”. For some, there may be a follow up after some thought – “And it helps my stress.” The primary reason is not to maintain mental health. It is often an afterthought; a happy bonus. So my question is how do you know your workout is helping your mental health? You have distinct criteria to evaluate whether your workout is helping your physical health. You check in with your physician who checks your weight, your BMI, your blood pressure, and maybe lab results regarding your cholesterol, triglycerides and other markers. If your workout isn’t resulting in physical health improvements, then you work with a professional (your physician, a nutritionist, a personal trainer) to adjust your physical strategies to achieve your physical goals.

So I’ll ask again: how do you know your workout is helping your mental health? Most people assume it is, but would you assume your workout is meeting all your physical needs without some markers established by a professional? What if your workout isn’t quite meeting your mental health needs?

The second perspective regarding the maintenance of mental health is related to crisis. People think about their mental health when it is failing and starting to detrimentally impact their daily lives. This approach is opposite the perspective on physical health. With physical health maintenance, we have our yearly check-ins to identify negative issues early, before they become significant and need a higher level of intervention. This does not often translate to the maintenance of mental health. The physical equivalent to this perspective would be going to see a physician regarding the pain in your leg after your leg has gone completely numb, is unusable or the infection has spread to both legs. That sounds ridiculous, right? Then why doesn’t the same apply to mental health? Why wait until the anxiety or depression or negative thoughts become so pervasive that an individual isn’t functioning at his or her best, and the treatment takes longer than if that individual had come in when the pain first started?

What if instead of talking about mental health when there is a problem, we consider the goal of mental wellness?

This would mean establishing a relationship with a therapist, counselor or psychologist and including this professional on your list of annual check-ins. By meeting with this professional once or twice a year, for one or a handful of sessions, you get what I call “booster sessions” (consider these like the booster shots you get for your physical health, but for your mental wellness).  These sessions allow you to focus on what thoughts are working for you, creating beneficial emotions and behaviors, and identify these so you actively use them. It would also provide a trained, outside perspective to identify thoughts which are not working to support your mental wellness, help change them and, thus, prevent detrimental emotions and behaviors. You would be able to catch threats to your mental wellness before they become problematic and metastasize.

Maybe by changing society’s perspective from “mental health issues” to mental wellness, we will reduce the stigma erroneously associated with this topic, equally prioritize both mental wellness and physical health, and clearly see that by taking care of both, we can enhance their positive symbiotic relationship for our overall best selves.

Just a little something for your insight. – Dr. Robin