Opinion: Understanding the link between physical and mental health

The two can affect each other, especially when one of them goes ignored.


Wyatt Dlouhy

The Psychological and Brain Sciences building is seen on Friday, January 24, 2020.

Ally Pronina, Columnist

Mental and physical illness are often talked about as separate concepts, but this is not as simple a division as some think.

People with terminal physical illnesses may experience depression. For example, panic-attack symptoms are both mental and physical, with someone experiencing a racing heart, sweating, and trouble breathing.

I spoke with Emily Kroska, clinical assistant professor in the University of Iowa Psychological and Brain Sciences Department, to learn more.

“We don’t have data to indicate causality, but there is quite a bit of data suggesting the two [physical and mental health] are related,” Kroska said. “I have studied how childhood trauma impacts mental health, somatic symptoms, as well as problematic or risky health behaviors. If persistent, risky health behaviors can lead to long-term negative physical health consequences.”

Fortunately, psychologists can work at medical clinics which treat physical illnesses.

“Integrated care is one model of incorporating psychologists into medical systems … that is becoming increasingly more common, especially in VA health-care systems,” Kroska said. “Psychologists are in-house, where they are able to work with patients and providers. Many of the patients presenting to medical clinics are experiencing mental-health systems, and whether these symptoms are caused by a physical or mental illness, psychologists can often be helpful.”

Mental and physical illnesses can affect a person simultaneously. Psychologists should always, not just often, be integrated.

Critics might argue this would make health care too expensive. A research report from psychologists Linda Carlson and Barry D. Bultz contradicts this concern.

“Studies of cancer patients’ perceptions of needs find that they feel under-served in many areas, including the provision of treatments for these high levels of psychological and emotional distress,” the report said.

The case of euthanasia is a good hypothetical. What if someone living with severe physical problems wanted to end their life via euthanasia? Mental-health screenings are required for that. Would that treatment their mind?

Critics of this idea might also argue people with physical illnesses can find treatments themselves if needed. Sure, but it would be nice if on top of their mental and physical problems, they would not need to worry about finding care.

Plus, not everyone in that situation is going to admit, or even realize, they need mental-health services. Oncology patients might argue their lack of energy and lack of interest in activities is a result of cancer. New mothers say crying and being irritable results from a lack of sleep and the stress of taking care of a newborn. Yet, all these people’s symptoms could actually be caused by a mental illness such as depression.

Not everyone who has a physical illness has a mental one as well, though it could happen. People in these situations should have their mental health checked and given options for mental-health treatment if necessary.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.