When we come down with a cold, most of us don't hesitate to pop a pill or visit the doctor. But if we can't seem to shake our endless worries or that nagging sense of hopelessness, we plug along as though nothing is wrong. Hence the dire state of mental health in the U.S., where roughly one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder, yet less than half receive treatment. So why should you care about your mental health?
#1 Better Physical Health
There is a strong connection between the mind and body. If you're in physical pain, your work and family life may be affected or you may not be able to do the activities you enjoy, which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression. A 2012 study in Health Services Research confirmed this connection, noting that people with physical health problems are three times more likely to seek mental health care than those without physical conditions.
Just as physical health problems can lead to mental distress, mental health disorders can impair physical health (for example, by causing sleep disturbances or impairing immune function). When both mental and physical problems co-occur, doctors typically focus solely on the physical complaint and the cycle of illness continues. However, if the mental health problem gets addressed, many patients report improvements in their physical health. For instance, a 2003 study found that the treatment of depression in arthritis patients led to reduced pain and better overall health.
#2 Improved Productivity and Financial Stability
As a result of dependence on disability income, leaves of absence from work, lost earning potential and the high costs of mental health treatment, individuals with untreated mental health disorders may face significant economic struggles. Some end up foreclosing on their homes, declaring bankruptcy or homeless or incarcerated after trying to manage a mental illness.
In a 2003 survey by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 70 percent of those with mental illness had an annual income of $20,000 or less, and 20 percent lived on just $5,000 per year. Similarly, a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people suffering from a serious mental illness earned at least 40 percent less than people in good mental health. People with untreated psychiatric illnesses make up one-third of the homeless population and about 16 percent of the total inmate population.
For those who are able to maintain employment, research shows a link between mental health disorders and reduced productivity. The World Health Organization reports that an estimated 200 million work days are lost each year due to depression alone, and five out of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental health problems. People who struggle with anxiety and depression are more likely to take sick leave repeatedly and for long periods of time (over 90 days), according to a 2012 study by researchers at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
#3 Less Strain on the Family
Mental illness affects families as well as individuals. The children of people with mental illness are at greater risk for abuse, neglect, and a wide range of emotional and behavioral issues. Since they can't look to their parents for help, and they often isolate themselves from friends, many don't receive needed social support. In many cases, the effects carry over into adulthood, driving children to seek mental health treatment of their own.
Other family members are likewise affected. Loved ones often report financial strain, job loss and their own psychological problems as a result of trying to help their mentally ill family member. For this reason, recovery should be a process undertaken by the entire family so that both the individual and their loved ones learn new skills at the same time.
#4 Avoidance of Crime and Victimization
Some studies suggest that people with untreated mental illness, especially in conjunction with other risk factors, may be at increased risk of committing violent crimes or, even more likely, becoming victims themselves. The risk increases substantially when the individual uses drugs or alcohol or has acute symptoms, less insight into their disease or poor medication adherence. Most often, acts of violence are perpetrated against family members or someone in the individual's close social circle.
Although many crimes against people with severe psychiatric disorders aren't reported, there have been many instances of stealing money, property and disability checks. In addition, assaults, rapes and murders have been reported, particularly against women with schizophrenia. A North Carolina study in Psychiatric Services found that people with severe psychiatric disorders who weren't taking medication were 2.7 times more likely to be the victim of a violent crime than the general population.
#5 A Longer, Happier Life
According to a 2012 study in the British Medical Journal, people with even mild mental health problems may have a lower life expectancy. Those with the highest levels of depression or anxiety had a risk of death that increased a whopping 94 percent, most often related to heart disease.
People with mental health problems, especially mild symptoms of anxiety or depression, often fly under the radar of physicians and mental health professionals -- typically at great cost to individuals, families and the public. Even if you're able to work, fulfill family responsibilities and otherwise function in daily life, mental health problems can have serious consequences.
So why should you prioritize your mental health? Because caring for your mind as well as your body means you'll not only live longer but better. Just as we have effective treatments for physical illnesses, there are therapies, medications and lifestyle interventions that can ease mental suffering, especially if you get help at the earliest signs of a problem.
David Sack, M.D., is board-certified in Addiction Medicine, Addiction Psychiatry, and Psychiatry. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees treatment centers such as the new Lucida luxury treatment center in Florida, Right Step in Texas, and Promises Treatment Centers in California and Texas.