Study: Doctors Don't Take Mental Health As Seriously As Physical Health

It's time to start treating mental health like the serious concern it is.
KatarzynaBialasiewicz via Getty Images

It's 2016, and the stigma attached to mental illness is infuriatingly still alive and well.

Negative stereotypes deeply affect those with mental health conditions and may even discourage them from getting proper medical treatment. And now research suggests this stigma even creates an unconscious bias among medical professionals.

Quite simply: Physicians don't take mental illnesses as seriously as physical maladies.

The study, published in the journal Health Affairs earlier this week, found that doctors neglect to follow up with their patients who have a depression diagnosis. They also are less likely to help depression patients manage their illnesses. Meanwhile, these doctors are more likely to engage in care strategies with patients who have chronic physical illnesses like diabetes.

The researchers used survey results from a thousand U.S. primary care facilities, taken between 2006 and 2013, to examine doctors' strategies for treating patients with depression compared to those used to treat congestive heart failure, asthma and diabetes.

While those with physical ailments were treated with the proper protocol outlined for a chronic condition -- such as doctors teaching patients about their conditions and reminding them about their specific treatment plans -- those with depression didn't receive the same level of care, as NPR reports.

The findings are unsettling because many patients seek treatment for depression from their primary care doctors. This is usually due to health insurance limitations and the stigma attached to seeing a specialized mental health professional. Interestingly enough, insurance issues are part of the reason why the study found a lack of depression care management from primary doctors in the first place, according to NPR. Time constraints were another reason.

Experts are increasingly recommending that clinicians do depression screenings during a person's regular physical exam. While that's a good start, it hardly guarantees followup care at the basic level. Instead, followups are left up to mental health specialists in the healthcare hierarchy, which once again, isn't always an option for some people.

The study authors also concluded that primary care practices "are not well equipped to manage depression as a chronic illness, despite the high proportion of depression care they provide." This is arguably the most alarming takeaway, given that depression -- while manageable -- can occur multiple times throughout a person's life.

"Depression is a recurring illness," Sagar Parikh, associate director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center, told The Huffington Post. "When it's there, it's often present for months. It needs a lot of active management and multiple treatments. Most people can recover from their depression, but they're vulnerable to a second depression or a third depression. That needs to be managed through lifestyle habits in order to prevent a relapse."

In other words, depression operates very similar to physical conditions like, say, high blood pressure. Health care professionals and society as whole consider those issues significant enough to receive follow up care from a doctor. Why can't we regard depression with the same weight?

“"The bottom line is that treating mental health problems not only reduces individual pain but it actually has an impact on physical health."”

- Sagar Parikh, associate director of the University of Michigan Comprehensive Depression Center.

Depression is actually the leading cause of disability worldwide. The illness prompts crippling symptoms, from headaches to gastrointestinal issues to a loss of motivation. Research is continually showing that disorders like anxiety could be hereditary, and results in fundamental brain differences. What's more is that depression puts people at an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and strokes. The disorder can also exacerbate chronic pain. We need no more evidence that these illnesses are as "real" and as important as physical issues.

"The brain and body are connected," Parikh said. "The bottom line is that treating mental health problems not only reduces individual pain but it actually has an impact on physical health."

There are ways to start making systemic changes to make sure people with mental health conditions don't slip through the cracks -- one of which is our adjusting our cultural attitude.

While a more accepting society isn't going to cure mental illness, it will certainly help with its management. A loved one wouldn't tell someone with diabetes to just "get over it." And a doctor wouldn't leave a patient with cancer to manage it on their own. These illnesses require effective treatment and proper care in order to live a fulfilling, healthy life.

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