Mind over Matter?

When we think of healthcare, I expect the majority of us would think of broken arms, twisted ankles, or the dreaded winter flu that threatens our physical health. Of course, this is a fair enough assumption as hospitals and GPs primarily exist to treat physical ailments that might befall us, and the primary job of a doctor is to understand the symptoms of the patient, diagnose what the problem is and then prescribe the necessary medication.

But recently the the wealth of discussions that surround the issues of our health service have been dominated by news stories about the funding that is available for mental health illnesses.

It is incredibly difficult to know where to start when we think about ‘mental health’ because it encompasses so many things ranging from depression to anorexia to schizophrenia, and, unlike a broken arm, the effects of mental illness are often invisible and difficult to diagnose. We have long appreciated the need for addressing serious instances of conditions like schizophrenia, and have developed advanced medical treatments, but what I have been thinking more of recently is how we approach issues like depression, which often manifest in subtler ways and continue to be stigmatised by society, perhaps because they are so difficult to diagnose and treat.

I have known people who have suffered from very severe depression, to the point where they are unable to even get out of bed in the morning. These illnesses have the potential to become so debilitating that they can drive individuals to take their own lives, and the reality of depression is that it will affect 1 in 10 of us at some point. Alongside these conditions we also see increasing instances of symptoms associated with depression such as stress, insecurity and unhappiness, which are beginning to become almost commonplace within certain demographics. These conditions certainly call for a different approach to treatment, and it seems clear that mental health issues ought to demand the attention of our care services.

In my opinion, your mental health should be treated with equal importance as your physical health. To me it seems so obvious that keeping in a good state of mind affects my quality of life just as much, if not more than, my physical health. Our current world demands so much from us, and it can often seem like pressure is coming from so many different areas of our lives – work, school, the media, the smartphones which seem to be attached to our hands – the list goes on and on. On top of these pressures, there remain many damaging connotations associated with mental illness, and a pressure to appear ‘fine’ and to ‘cope’ with stressful situations, which means many of those affected will continue to suffer in silence.

So what can we do to combat this increasingly common issue? One simple solution that would make a huge difference to way our society handles mental illness is the introduction of primary access to mental healthcare. Almost like a visiting a GP, but instead of talking to a GP about a physical problem you can discuss your mental health with a professional who will then be able to offer advice or perhaps provide the listening ear that you need. It may seem like a radical solution, but I personally feel that if people had the opportunity to confront their issues in a safe environment then we really could reduce cases of obesity, anorexia, severe depression, and maybe even addiction. Could it be the case that as with physical illness early intervention can prevent a more severe form? By increasing access to support we can not only help sufferers of mental illness to cope by giving them back the power to self manage their illness and increase the speed of their recovery, but also educate family members and friends of the patient so that they can offer truly helpful support at home.

So, can we justify the saying ‘mind over matter?’ The placebo effect has been well and truly confirmed and so we know that our minds are capable of powerful effects on the body, not to mention that we have barely scratched the surface of our understanding of how the brain works. As we see mental health being discussed more and more freely, in news stories, on campuses and even in schools, now is the time to seize the opportunity to make changes for good.

Olivia Bracken

One third of our Triage Trio. Olivia is about to finish a biochemistry degree and is looking into studying post graduate medicine.

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