Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Can Depression Be a Physical Illness?

A new look at psychological illness’ effects on the body.

As a social worker, I’m trained to think about the interrelatedness of individuals, families, peers, community, and society. In essence, the theory behind this idea, called the social ecological perspective, brings to life the expression “no man is an island.”

In part because of my professional training, it’s a challenge for me to view anything as having a simple, one-dimensional source or explanation. I like complexity, and I see connections everywhere.

So, I got a little excited when I read a recent Wall Street Journal article highlighting research on psychological illness’ effects on the body. From my perspective, it’s impossible that an illness as pervasive in the mind as depression wouldn’t affect the body—so scientific research acknowledging depression’s impact on the physical body is big, good news to me.

What’s happening? Stroke, dementia, and heart disease are illnesses of old age. But, researchers have found that people who experience long-term stress, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder may develop these illnesses earlier and in more serious forms. Research on “accelerated aging” is looking at what’s going on at the cellular level that may be contributing to these outcomes.

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What’s big about this news?

It shakes the foundation of the mind-body divide that’s so much a part of Western medicine. If the mind and body are seen as connected, as influential on each other, we can’t treat just the mind or just the body. We have to look at—and treat—individuals holistically.

It connects individual’s experiences of depression to their lives in communities and society. There has been a movement toward viewing health as being influenced by social factors, like socioeconomic status and race. Further research that looks more closely at who is most affected by accelerated aging may help us better understand the impact of social problems like poverty and racism on mental and physical health.

Understanding how psychological health contributes to physical health is valuable—financially. As chronic illnesses plague the U.S. and research dollars are thrown toward finding treatments and cures, this kind of research actually supports a prevention perspective. It takes trauma, depression, and stress out of the mental health silo and gives legitimacy to these experiences as contributors to physical illness. If we can reduce or prevent mental health problems, we can reduce or prevent physical health problems.

What questions do these research findings raise for you? Is anything in your life explained differently by knowing that mental and physical health are linked?

Thanks to Dan Fields for sending me this article. Dan writes, speaks, and advocates to raise awareness about middle-aged men and depression. You can read one of his pieces here.

Copyright 2012 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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