What is mental health?

Why worry about mental health?

Why should Americans care about their mental health? The most obvious answer is that without being mentally healthy, an individual cannot consider herself "healthy" in the true sense of the word. More importantly, however, mental health affects our physical and social health. Researchers in health psychology have conducted numerous studies wherein mental disorders such as depression or social support have affected the outcomes of pregnancy [Source: Nuckolls], gastrointestinal disorders [Source: Craig and Brown], and heart disease [Source: Rozanski]. Components of our mental health not only affects our emotional states, but our bodies physiological and biological states, as well. Psychological and social factors have been linked to physical disease states in three ways: (1) psychophysiological hyperactivity, (2) disease stability and (3) host vulnerability.

Though psychophisiological hyperactivity sounds like a complicated concept, it simply means that there is continuous mental stress being put on the body. If one is continuously exposed to a stressful environment, the body's ability to fight infection is reduced. Stress, in all of its forms, from mental to job-related, affects physical health in a variety of ways. Constant work strain, related to perceived levels of control at work, and lowered levels of social support have been shown to elevate risks for cardiovascular disease [Source: Johnson]. Psychological stress, resulting from both work and personal life, has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease [Source: Rozanski]. Stresses associated with migration from one culture to another has shown a worsening in existing physical illnesses, such as cancer [Source: Cohen] especially where there was a perceived reduction of social support.

Disease stability refers to how psychological or social factors may influence existing disease. For instance, people who have asthma can never exactly predict when an asthma attack will occur or how severe the attack will be. Attacks and severity however, can be influenced by psychosocial factors such as the degree of stress in the immediate environment. The greater the stress the person is feeling, the greater the chance for a severe attack.

Host vulnerability is the prolonged effects of stress on the body. In essence, the patient or "host" is much more vulnerable to disease and illness because of exposure to mental stressors. This concept has been validated by research that shows that people are more likely to develop a common cold when they are under stress [Source: Baider].

When we go to the doctor's to describe a physical ailment (e.g., stomach pains), these physical complaints or symptoms may be affected by the mental stress we encounter in our daily lives. Add to the mental stress a feeling of isolation and lack of social support and many physical symptoms may be exacerbated or prolonged. In effect these three concepts illustrate just how inextricably linked the components of physical, mental and social health are related. In order to more effectively treat these ailments we must therefore treat the entire person—the mind, the body, and the soul of the individual.

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