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Are we too focused on physical health?

Healthy body, healthy mind; it's a well-accepted mantra. What's less widely acknowledged is the fact that it can work the other way round: poor mental health can directly lead to poor physical health.

For many years, mental health professionals such as psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health nurses have been aware of the link between mental illness and increased risk of serious physical illnesses such as obesity, diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease. The King's Fund has estimated that the effect of poor mental health on physical health costs the NHS at least £8 billion per year. It follows that improving one could significantly improve the other and save the NHS money. However, as we addressed in our blogs on mental health funding and mental health waiting times, spending on mental health is falling and, in many areas of the country, there's an acute shortage of staff such as mental health nurses and psychotherapists.

Of course, the answer is not just more money. There needs to be more collaboration between mental and physical health professionals (as well as relevant clinical support staff such as dietitians) to achieve earlier positive intervention. According to a 2011 study by the National Obesity Observatory, those with depression have a 58% increased risk of becoming obese. And a 2010 report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, No Health Without Public Health, quotes research that shows they're also 67% more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and 50% more likely to die from cancer.

"There is a sense of no one taking responsibility for this," said Dr David Shiers, a clinical advisor to the National Audit of Schizophrenia and NICE, speaking at a recent conference organised by Worcestershire Health and Care NHS Trust. "These risks start really early so the big opportunity to improve is very early on."

With high-profile events such as National Obesity Awareness Week (12 – 18 January 2015), the time is right to widen awareness of the link between mental health and serious physical illnesses. As Centre for Mental Health Chief Executive Sean Duggan put it in his response to NHS England's five-year forward view, "The NHS can no longer afford to overlook mental health."

Are you a mental or physical health professional with views on the issues raised in this article? Leave your comments below.

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