Mental health is more than the absence of a mental health condition or illness: it is a positive sense of well-being, or the capacity to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. There is a strong link between mental health and physical health. The multiple associations between mental health and chronic physical conditions significantly impact people’s quality of life.
Poor mental health is a risk factor for chronic physical conditions. People with serious mental health conditions are at high risk of experiencing chronic physical conditions. People with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health.
Both mind and body are affected by changes in physiological and emotional processes, as well as by social factors such as income, housing e.t.c. These three factors; biological State, illness experience, and the social determinants of health can increase the likelihood of someone living with a mental illness or chronic physical condition developing a co-existing condition.
The prevalence of common mental disorders is on the rise in Nigeria today especially with the stress associated with Covid-19 pandemic. People living with mental illnesses experience a range of physical symptoms that result both from the illness itself and as a side effect of medications. Mental illnesses can alter hormonal balance and sleep cycles, while many psychiatric medications have side-effects ranging from weight gain to irregular heart rhythms.
These symptoms create an increased vulnerability to a range of physical conditions. The risk of developing some physical illnesses is higher in people with depression. People with depression have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke and other chronic diseases, and for example. Research also suggests that people with depression are at higher risk for osteoporosis relative to others. The reasons are not yet clear. One factor with some of these illnesses is that many people with depression may have less access to good medical care. They may find it difficult to take good care of their personal health, for example, seeking care, taking prescribed medication, eating well, and exercising.
Furthermore, In people with depression, scientists have found changes in the way several systems in the body function, all of which can have an impact on physical health:
Signs of increased inflammation
Changes in the control of heart rate and blood circulation
Abnormalities in stress hormones
Metabolic changes typical of those seen in people at risk for diabetes
However, the way that people experience their mental illnesses can increase their susceptibility of developing poor physical health. Mental illness can influence social and cognitive functions, decrease energy levels, which can negatively impact the adoption of healthy behaviours. People may lack motivation to take care of their health. Or, they may adopt unhealthy eating and sleeping habits, smoke or abuse substances, as a consequence or response to their symptoms, contributing to worse health outcomes.
People living with mental illnesses often face higher rates of poverty, unemployment, lack of stable housing, social isolation e.t.c. These social factors increase the vulnerability of developing chronic physical conditions. For example, people who are unable to afford healthier food options often experience nutritional deficiencies. Poor nutrition is a significant risk factor for the development of heart disease and diabetes. Similarly, it is more difficult to be physically active when living in an unsafe or unhealthy environment.
Some chronic physical conditions can cause high blood sugar levels and disrupt the circulation of blood, which can lead to brain impairment. People living with chronic physical conditions often experience emotional stress and chronic pain, which are both associated with the development of depression and anxiety. Experiences with disability can also cause distress and isolate people from social supports. There is some evidence that the more symptomatic the physical condition, the more likely that a person will also experience mental health problems. Thus, it is not surprising that people with chronic physical conditions often self-report poor mental health.
Mental and physical illnesses also share many symptoms, such as food cravings and decreased energy levels, which can increase food consumption, decrease physical activity and contribute to weight gain. These factors increase the risk of developing chronic physical conditions and can also have a detrimental impact upon an individual’s mental well-being.
The social determinants of health can also affect individual mental well-being. People living in poverty with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing mental health problems and may face barriers to access mental health care, which can increase mental health problems. Homelessness in particular can be stressful and lead to poorer mental and physical health
Understanding the links between mind and body is the first step in developing strategies to reduce the incidence of co-existing conditions and support those already living with mental illnesses and physical health conditions.
Key aspects of prevention include increasing physical activity, access to nutritious foods, ensuring adequate income and fostering social inclusion and social support. This creates opportunities to enhance protective factors and reduce risk factors related to aspects of mental and physical health.
Note: the roles of mental health professionals, cannot be undermine in promoting overall wellbeing. Psychologists and therapists are within the wider health service with clear evidence that multidisciplinary professionals value their skills and contribution to health care outcomes, patient‐focused care, public health, community well‐being, research and health care training.
Clinical Psychologist,
Mental Health Foundation, Nigeria

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