Physical health and mental wellbeing

Many of the people we spoke to described having co-morbid physical conditions that were either related or unrelated to their mental health problems. These included conditions that had a relatively minor day-to-day impact such as diabetes or impaired kidney function, but required regular monitoring and treatment to avoid significant complications. Others spoke about more severe conditions such as chronic pain, sciatica and fibromyalgia, which could have a significant impact on people’s mental health.

People talked about the relationship between their physical and mental health – when mental health impacted on physical health, and vice versa. They also discussed the impact of their physical symptoms on daily life, side-effects of medications, the impact of life stage on physical health, and the links between good physical health and mental wellbeing.

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Relationship between physical and mental health
Symptoms of co-morbid physical health conditions – impact on daily life
Physical health and recovery from mental health problems
Accessing care for physical health problems

Relationship between physical and mental health

For many people, the relationship between physical and mental health was complex. Some people described how mental health problems had manifested as or caused physical problems. Carlo went to hospital after experiencing breathing difficulties, a racing heart, and a sense of unease. After some tests his treating doctor told Carlo his heart was ‘amazing’ and did not undertake further investigations, leading Carlo to delay seeking a second opinion. In Sarah’s case, a mental health problem contributed to physical health issues.

When Sarah left a Buddhist monastery where she was on retreat she was in ‘distress’. She had stopped eating, was dehydrated and had developed pneumonia.

Conversely, many people reported that their physical health issues affected their mental wellbeing. Cindy described feeling ‘down and depressed’ after experiencing years of a still undiagnosed ‘itchy, burning’ and ‘chronic’ skin condition. Others felt that their mental health diagnosis was brought on by a physical condition. Michelle said that when her back pain was ‘undermanaged’ by her GP it had the effect of ‘eating away at’ her mind, and had played a ‘big part of bringing on what triggered’ her symptoms of schizophrenia.

For Helen and Taylor, menopause impacted on their physical and mental health. Helen found that she gained weight after taking an antipsychotic medication, which had not occurred prior to menopause. Her GP undertook tests to determine why. After her thyroid test results came back normal, Helen thought, ‘Maybe it’s just part of my life. What do they call it? The post-menopause or whatever, ageing’. Taylor also associated her heightened anxiety and depression to being in a peri-menopausal life stage.

After undergoing major surgery in his early 20s, David found the resultant pain difficult to manage. This had a ‘real effect’ on his mental health.

Symptoms of co-morbid physical health conditions – impact on daily life

Co-morbid physical health issues limited several people’s ability to work. Simon said he was forced to ‘retire’ at the age of 26 due to fibromyalgia, which he described as ‘an ache all over, you feel like even your eyelashes are aching’. ‘Sky high’ hypertension in conjunction with depression put a halt to Vanessa’s work as a teacher.

The pain Michelle experienced following a back injury prevented her from working, which placed ‘pressure’ on her partner to support her and her daughter.

A few people said medications to treat physical health issues negatively impacted on their lifestyle or had unpleasant side effects. Some medications that Cindy was prescribed to treat a skin condition caused drowsiness and sensitivity to light. Michelle called a ‘strong’ painkiller that reduced her back pain a ‘lifesaver’, but it caused chronic constipation.

Unwanted side effects from psychiatric medications such as weight gain and lethargy were common (see also Medication: Effectiveness and Side Effects). Other side-effects mentioned were drooling, visual disturbances, and a dry throat. Some people were able to accept these and developed simple management strategies. However, some medication side effects led to complex, difficult to treat problems.

Tanai’s medication-induced hunger spiralled into bulimia, which left her with a number of severe physical health issues.

Vanessa talked about some of the physical side-effects of psychiatric medications she has tried.

Physical health and recovery from mental health problems

Many people discussed the importance of maintaining good physical health (see also Negotiating daily life and Self-help strategies). Improving one’s physical health, whether through exercise or diet, was viewed as being an important part of personal recovery. People spoke about exercise in relation to increasing wellbeing in general, or more specifically, to lose weight. To improve his overall health and wellbeing, and to promote recovery from his mental health condition, Evan said he had enrolled in a weight management program at a clinic. Being unable to exercise was frustrating for some people.

Carlo had a strong focus on staying ‘well and healthy’ through exercise, yoga and meditation. Unable to exercise after he underwent surgery, he felt he had lost an important form of ‘stress release’.

Accessing care for physical health problems

Getting the necessary help from doctors to manage their physical health was challenging for a few people, who described having to insist on a prescription, or a referral or care plan from a GP to see a specialist. A few people said being able to access what they felt was needed reduced the negative impact of their physical health condition on their mental health. Being able to access the pain medication that would stop Michelle being bedbound proved difficult for her, but she persisted and ultimately succeeded.

Cindy encountered difficulty in accessing help for a physical health problem due to doctors’ attitudes towards her mental health condition.