Is mental health part of 'health and wellness'?

Our brains and bodies are intrinsically linked

Is mental health part of 'health and wellness'?

In the Young Influencers 2021 report, Canadian HR Reporter recently ran the results of a survey of human resources professionals on the major issues facing them and their organizations. Two aspects got my attention.

One question asked about employee “health and wellness” and 71 per cent said, yes, that was an important concern. A second, separate question asked the same thing about employee “mental health” but only 51 per cent saw that as a pressing issue for HR people.

But why was mental health separated out as a stand-alone question? Surely, by any definition, it is part and parcel of health and wellness. And what are we to make of the large percentage split between these categories when we know, in real time, health and mental health are inseparable in every way?

The survey design reflects a continuing source of confusion about how the health and functioning of our brains and our bodies are linked. Believe me, our brain and body are connected by a lot more than our neck.

The American Psychiatric Association once said that “There is much that is mental about physical disorders and much that is physical about mental disorders.” We’ve known this for a long time.

In fact, mental disorders can increase the odds of a fatal heart attack. Pretty physical stuff. These conditions can also affect our blood and immune system and alter the course of a number of chronic conditions. Major depression, for example, can be linked to asthma, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, addictions and anxiety.

Over the years, scientists have discovered that:

  • about 20 per cent of the people who suffer heart attacks show signs of major depression and heart victims who suffer depression do not have the same chance of survival, according to Francois Lesperance et al at the Montreal Heart Institute
  • depression and bipolar disorder can pre-dispose youth to accelerated atherosclerosis which a pediatric health risk, according Roger McIntyre et al at the University Health Network.

Canada’s Roger McIntyre says an Olympic athlete who doesn’t smoke, is not obese and is not living an unhealthy lifestyle is more likely to contract diabetes just by virtue of having depression.

Even as the quality of life for Parkinson’s patients has greatly improved, the American Academy of Neurology reports that people with depression may have triple the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease, according to a 2013 study.

The Journal of Obstetric Gynecologic Neonatal Nursing reports that depression is common during pregnancy, and this merits a new emphasis on “education and screening.”

“In reality, the interactions between mental disorders and other health conditions are widespread and complex. For some infectious diseases, mental disorders increase the risk of transmission,” says the Lancet.

These findings have been known for a long time. HR professionals should become informed of these “co-morbidities” and ensure case managers and other workplace health service providers are aware of the research available to anyone and can demonstrate a studied approach to the implications.

Clearly, mental health is part of employee “health and wellbeing.” Survey questions should not separate the inseparable and survey results based on this false premise are, at best, confusing.

Bill Wilkerson is the executive chairman of Mental Health International. For more information, visit

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