Mental health and physical health are linked. So why are so many mental health organisations calling for a dedicated national strategy for mental health instead of supporting the new Major Conditions strategy which puts mental health and physical health conditions in equal standing?
When is mental health physical health? When is it not?
Mental health and physical health are, undeniably, intrinsically linked. Research MQ is supporting continues to provide evidence that indicates the depth of the link between our bodies and minds. It is unsurprising when we consider than our brains are a part of our physical bodies, our thoughts therefore are affected by our physical selves. What we go through as physical bodies will affect our thoughts and feelings. We are all made up of cells to create a nervous system, linked to our brains both of which interact with the external world and both of which are affected by the external world. Our environments, experiences and the world around us affects us on a cellular level.
Research MQ is facilitating includes studies into just how exact this mind and body link is – from physical conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease being linked to depression and anxiety, to the role of inflammation and the development of life-long mental illnesses. From the links between hyper-mobility and anxiety and the long-term effects of COVID infection on our mental health.
Recently, our Gone Too Soon project not only examined why those with severe mental illness (SMI) are likely to die earlier than those who do not have those conditions, but also produced a series of evidence-based recommendations to stop this premature mortality.
If mental health affects our thoughts, feelings and behaviour and our behaviour can affect our physical health, it stands to reason to consider mental health and physical health as inextricably connected and intertwined.
But while mental health is linked to physical health, the two are not treated the same way in society either through funding or through our perceptions.
For many physical health conditions, multiple charities exist not only to raise awareness but to support research into the illness, condition or disease. Take cancer as an example. Charities exist not only to help those with the condition, but many separate charities exist to support research into the various specific types of cancer. In fact, cancer research receives 26 times more funding than mental health research.
There are still stigmas surrounding mental illness that prevent many people from reaching out for help, where as seeing a doctor about a physical ailment feels far less challenging for many.
In January 2023, the UK Government scrapped the 10 year mental health plan that was to roll out over the next decade, instead including mental health In the new Major Conditions Strategy plan. This move disappointed the mental health sector, who objected to the abandonment of a much-needed strategy to level up mental healthcare; long considered a ‘Cinderella service’. Since then, the Draft Mental health Bill which has been working it’s way through parliament seems to have stalled. Addressing the mental health needs of the nation is dropping down the Governments priority list.
This is why MQ produced a report delivered to Downing Street earlier this year to ask the UK Government to reconsider their strategy when it comes to mental health and physical health.
Building on MQ’s calls for the Government to renew their long-term commitment to mental health, now there is a joint call for all parties to commit to prioritising mental health in their election manifestos. This new call, led by the Centre for Mental Health and supported by MQ, is being made by over 30 mental health organisations. You can read about it here.
Leveling the field
We at MQ believe in holistic health. We all have mental health just like we all have physical health and the two, research shows, not only affect each other but are linked. So why would we, and others, want mental health to be treated differently to physical health?
Because while mental health and physical health are linked, they have not been treated the same way in science and in society, leading to a gap between knowledge and therefore treatment and prevention.
MQ Ambassador and researcher James Downs, who lives with severe mental illness himself, agrees that the difference between mental and physical health is not in the science but in the social model:
“We cannot afford the costs of not investing in research. The costs aren’t just economic – they are in the stories of people like me.”
James took part in the research for the Gone Too Soon project, supported by MQ, which looked at why those with severe mental illness are statistically more likely to die earlier than those without.
“Parity of esteem between mental health and physical health isn’t just about removing the shame in talking about mental health problems or making sure they have the same status in law. It’s also about parity in knowledge and research, investment into learning about what works in treating mental health, and why.”
Unlike physical health, mental health is less clear to see, harder to convey since it’s down to personal experience of thoughts and feelings and arguably more unique to individual experience. MQ is working hard to support researchers shining a light on what we’ve not been able to see until now, partly because of lack of funding.
Existing treatments are not effective for everyone. There is no a one-size-fits-all solution.
We are all of us different, not only the culture we’re born into, the bodies we are naturally growing within, the experiences that formed our earliest years. We are all also products of our environment. Whether that be a city, a village, isolated or connected, surrounded by comfort and warmth or stress and demands – each of us experiences different difficulties that inform our body and therefore our mind.
Moving forward, MQ just like our ambassador James Downs, strives to see true change as we look to the next stage of mental health research:
“I want to look back in the future and see that, from prevention and early intervention, to treatment and ongoing management of mental health problems, we know what we are doing in the same way we do with physical health.”
Help move mental health research forward. Help to balance out the disparity between mental and physical health by supporting MQ now.
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