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3 minute read |

Mental Illness and Physical Health: Beneath the Bones


Guest Author : Jennifer Woodson

There is a stigma surrounding mental illness that makes it difficult for people to talk about. Still, in a given year there are more than 60 million people in the U.S. who experience a mental illness. And it’s hard to watch a loved one suffer with a treatable disorder. Even harder when their circumstances begin to take a toll on their physical health.

There are many different mental disorders. They can all affect the body, either directly or indirectly. Yet some conditions are a lot harder than others to see. It's their symptoms, or the behaviors they cause, that can finally be the tip off to what’s going on inside. For example, people with mental illness may process information differently from the rest of the family. Some talk about seeing or hearing things that no one else can. Some experience severe mood swings or isolate themselves from others. Finally, some people have trouble keeping up with their own thoughts. This can make it difficult to communicate in ways that others can understand.

Substance Abuse

People with an undiagnosed mental illness may turn to drugs or alcohol for comfort. They use substances to help them sleep, or to numb the painful emotions they face every day. Warning signs related to substance abuse can actually mask deeper issues of mental illness. You may observe changes in eating habits or a decline in physical appearance. Perhaps the person now gets too much sleep, or too little. Isolation from friends and family compounds other issues making it harder to suss out the root cause.

Addiction has profound effects on the body. It can cause physical changes to the brain. It can lead to severe weight loss or weight gain, and also to depression. People living with a mental disorder often gain weight because they tend to have a very sedentary lifestyle. Diabetes and heart issues may develop, causing problems of their own. Chronic co-morbidities affect kidneys, eyes, gums and teeth, feet and heart.


Where depression is concerned, people living with mental illness may not even be aware they suffer from it. This is especially true if they are abusing a substance. That’s why it’s imperative for the individual to be under a doctor’s care. They need to be as open and honest as possible with their care providers about their daily activities.

“Depression when it’s coupled with chronic physical illness is likely to be missed by professionals caring for physically sick patients. The physical disorder is more likely what brought the patient in for the consultation, so health professionals tend to focus on that. They may not be aware of the accompanying depression,” says Professor David Goldberg.

Providing Support

It’s a good idea to be as supportive as possible with your loved one and let them know you’re there for them. Tell them you’re listening, and that you’ll help them get the treatment they need. However, it’s critical that you include them in any decision-making. Don’t assume that they will be complacent and allow someone else to make plans for their well-being. Ask questions about their needs, and offer to accompany them to a doctor or therapist for moral support. Don’t be afraid to ask the healthcare provider questions on your loved one’s behalf. It may be overwhelming for them to take everything in and they might forget.

Mental health issues are treatable with the right therapies and medication. Let your loved one know that they are not alone.

Jennifer Woodson enjoys serving the public as a writer for The site is dedicated to putting the public back into public health by serving as a hub of reputable and useful public information on health topics.

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