The invisible line between mental and physical health

Posted on June 5, 2020


Posted By Mary Lu Spagrud
CMHA staff at an event in Prince George

Mary Lu Spagrud // Canadian Mental Health Association – Prince George Branch

The time has come that we need to stop talking about mental and physical health as two separate concerns and focus on health. One of the most widely believed and damaging myths is that mental illness is not a physical disease.  We have come a long way in understanding our mental health but there are still misconceptions that mental and physical health aren’t related. The World Health Organization, defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO). But as a society, there is still work that needs to be done to catch up with this idea.

Defining health

The definition of health can vary between people and situations. Health includes physical aspects like broken arms or heart attacks. But health goes beyond the physical – it also includes mental health which affects how people cope and enjoy life. 

Mental health and physical health are fundamentally linked. Many mental health problems involve mental as well as physical symptoms. Imagine that someone is very anxious and experiences an anxiety or panic attack. They will have mental symptoms such as anxious or fearful thoughts, as well as physical symptoms such as a racing heart, sweaty palms, or difficulty breathing. When someone is experiencing depression, they may experience the emotions of sadness, helplessness, and hopelessness but it’s likely they will also experience physical symptoms that affect their sleep patterns, eating habits, appetite, and energy.

Overcoming stigma and blame

The stigma associated with mental illness continues to be a barrier to diagnosis and treatment. Stigma acts as a barrier in many ways. It can directly prevent people from accessing health care, and negative past experiences can prevent people from seeking health care out of fear of discrimination.

Often when people are diagnosed with a mental illness, there is blame put on the person who has it. But when someone has a physical health problem there is less of a chance for that person to be blamed for it. Why would we treat mental and physical health different if they are both essential parts of determining someone’s level of health?

Health is not an on or off thing

When it comes to our physical health, we all have strategies to stay healthy. We might take the stairs instead of the elevator, make sure we eat our veggies, or wear sunscreen to protect our skin. Safeguarding our mental health is just as important. Unfortunately, many of us don’t consciously make an effort to stay mentally healthy.

Many people see mental health as not having symptoms of mental illness. In reality it is much more than that. Mental health means feeling good about who you are, having balance in your life and thinking, and responding constructively to life’s highs and lows.

A person feels mentally healthy when they feel like everything is working well. One feels good about them self and their relationships, and are able to meet the demands and challenges of everyday life. Just as life and circumstances continually change, so do moods, thoughts, and one’s sense of well-being. It is the same with physical health – we feel well when our bodies are working well. We can meet the demands of our lives and do the things we want to do. And just as our moods can change, so can our physical health. It is natural to feel off-balance at times especially when we feel sad, worried, scared, or suspicious.  

It is time for us to catch up and simply talk about our health in all aspects.

For more resources on how to focus on your health and resilience, visit the Prince George CMHA website or check out the resources on the Support PG Health & Wellness page.

About the author: Mary Lu Spagrud is the Manager of Education & Projects for Canadian Mental Health Association – Prince George Branch. She presents on a wide variety of topics relating to wellness, mental health and hopes to increase understanding and acceptance of all aspects of mental health and wellness. Mary Lu holds a Bachelor’s degree in Recreation Studies from the University of Manitoba and is currently working towards a Master’s degree. She enjoys time spent with her family and friends, camping, enjoying the outdoors and a good glass of BC wine.