The connection between mental health and chronic disease

Do depression and anxiety lead to chronic physical disease, or does having a chronic disease lead to depression and anxiety?

Sara Jordan
Sara Jordan of CMHA: “I think the Wellness Transformation Network is amazing and I think it’s the way to go. Finding ways to prevent disease is good for mental health.”

It could be either or both, according to Sara Jordan: “It’s chicken and egg.”

Jordan, Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Calgary Region, says that if someone is dealing with situational or chronic depression, they might be less motivated to exercise, eat well, and socialize, and perhaps more likely to smoke or abuse substances, which would ultimately have negative physical impacts. Similarly, if someone has a chronic illness, like type 2 diabetes, they might become depressed and lose the ability to take steps to improve their health. A vicious cycle ensues.

“I don’t think you can have a chronic disease or condition and not experience depression,” she says

The link between mental health and physical wellness is backed by science. In fact, says Jordan, there are now even psychiatric clinical practice guidelines in some jurisdictions that prescribe exercise for patients.

The logic would suggest then, if you treat people’s mental health issues, you could disrupt the progression to physical illness; conversely, if you get the body healthy, you can avert mental health challenges.

For Jordan, it’s about seeing people holistically, and that is why she is excited about SciMar’s Wellness Transformation Network (WTN) initiative which will coordinate, oversee, and measure the impact of a variety of lifestyle interventions for non-profit health organizations, commercial workplaces, and Indigenous communities—through the lens of SciMar’s breakthrough science.

“I think the Wellness Transformation Network is amazing and I think it’s the way to go,” she says. “Finding ways to prevent disease is good for mental health, it’s good for the economy, and it’s good for the health care system. Speaking for myself, I don’t think our health care system is sustainable for the long term and we know that 60% of chronic diseases are preventable; and we know that healthy people are productive people. What SciMar is doing can have a wide-ranging impact.”

As a mental health advocate, Jordan thinks the time is right to shine a bright light on depression, anxiety, and other conditions, given the impact COVID-19 has been having on people’s emotional well-being. At CMHA Calgary, she is seeing a significant uptick in requests for service and referrals.

“A survey was done here recently that showed that 72% of Albertans are reporting feeling increased levels of sadness, depression, and anxiety, specifically related to COVID,” she says. “That is significant; that is most people. And that number only represents the number of people willing to acknowledge how they are feeling.”

The upside, perhaps, is that people are becoming more open to talking about mental health and recognizing the importance of holistic wellness and community well-being.

For Jordan, a key upside of the Wellness Transformation Network is the community nature of the planned lifestyle interventions, citing a “peer support” model that is growing in popularity in mental health care. Having people around you committed to the same goals creates “circles of support” as you work toward mental wellness and lifestyle changes.

Achieving health care success and making change at the individual and societal level takes community commitment, courageous policy-making, and innovative programming, says Jordan.

The Wellness Transformation Network is ready to do its part.