Did you know that May is Mental Health Awareness Month? Mental Health has been an essential part of healthcare for a long time. We now know that trauma and mental health play an important part in physical health outcomes. We are also more aware now than ever, of just how important it is to find ways to care for our mental wellness. 

 Read on to learn more about the connection between mental health and physical health.

How Mental Health Impacts Physical Health

There are many ways in which someone’s mental health can adversely impact physical health. 

Anxiety, for example, can impact one’s ability to get restful sleep. A lack of quality sleep can lead to a weakened immune system. A weakened immune system leaves the body vulnerable to all kinds of illness. 

In a recent article, Registered Nutritionist Rhian Stephenson explained the link between mental and physical health this way:

“Our mental health will also affect how we feel in our body in more obvious ways,”  explained Stephenson. “Sleep health, motivation and energy for exercise, response to exercise and appetite can all be positively and negatively impacted by our emotional state. For example, studies have shown that emotional states such as anxiety and depression can increase insulin resistance, which over time can lead to not only diabetes but increase the risk for other chronic illnesses that are associated with insulin dysregulation.”

Live Science

How Trauma Impacts Growth

In recent years, the impact that mental health has had on physical health has become better understood. With the development of the ACE test, we can predict with near certainty how someone’s health will progress, or deteriorate, over time by assessing the amount of trauma experienced in childhood.

A study done in 2019 by BMC analyzed the survey results from a 1979 survey and determined that ACE results predicted a diabetes diagnosis for women with an ACE score of 2 or higher. Research has also shown that a traumatic childhood is correlated with the development of arthritis.

It isn’t, of course, a failproof method to determine future outcomes. Many variations can determine what happens as a child grows up: Did they have access to mental health tools? Did they have supportive adults in their lives? Did they find a safe environment to heal? The answers to these questions can also help determine the impact of trauma on mental and physical health.

Mental Health in Healthcare Providers

Healthcare workers, such as nurses, doctors, and technicians, aren’t immune to mental health issues. The CDC spells out clearly that mental health stressors have always been a part of the job, even prior to the pandemic. Common stressors include:

  • Intensely stressful and emotional situations in caring for those who are sick
  • Exposure to human suffering and death
  • Unique pressures from relationships with the patient, family members, and employers
  • Working conditions with ongoing risk for hazardous exposures such as infectious diseases, hazardous drugs, and more
  • Demanding physical work and risk of injuries
  • Long and often unpredictably scheduled hours of work. This is often related to as-needed scheduling, unexpected double shifts, and unpredictable intensity of on-call work.
  • Unstable and unpredictable work lives, and financial strain (Source: CDC)

With the added trauma of a worldwide pandemic, statistics are showing that mental distress is going up for healthcare workers. In a recent study that measured the impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on healthcare workers, 82% of healthcare workers said they were emotionally exhausted, 70% said they struggled with sleep, and 63% said they dreaded coming to work.

Covid and Mental Health

With the pandemic still going on, mental health is often featured in news headlines. Never before has mental wellness been at the forefront of the world’s mind in quite the same way that it has been these last few years.

With job losses, income loss, and life interruptions, mental wellness issues have begun to spike. Increased isolation due to lockdowns and a constant stream of news at the ready any time we pick up our phones means that anxiety and depression have been increasing at alarming rates. This is particularly true for vulnerable people already at risk for adverse mental health symptoms such as the elderly, the poor, and other marginalized groups.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic recession have negatively affected many people’s mental health and created new barriers for people already suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders. During the pandemic, about 4 in 10 adults in the U.S. have reported symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder, a share that has been largely consistent, up from one in ten adults who reported these symptoms from January to June 2019

Kaiser Family Foundation

Mental Health and Missions

Mental health is also an important issue to consider when it comes to the mission field. Missionaries, of course, are not exempt from stress. Indeed, many things on the mission field can be extremely distressing to experience and, if self-care is not a priority, can lead to adverse experiences on this job.

Burn-out, anxiety, and depression are common stressors in the mission field. When you are deep in the work, it can be all too easy to forget to care for your own health too. When everywhere you look is a soul who needs Jesus or a child who needs clean water or medical attention, it’s easy to forget your own needs in the process. This is when mental health tends to become a struggle. 

“Research confirms that 94% of missionaries experience trauma on the field with 86% being exposed to multiple incidents; yet, only half of these individuals reported suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms.  Of those surveyed, 43% developed a diagnosable mental disorder.”

Robert Bagley, “Trauma and Traumatic Stress Among Missionaries,” Journal of Psychology and Theology
31, no. 2

With these types of numbers, it is absolutely essential to consider mental health as a part of self-care when it comes to serving in the mission field. Having a safe community of people to turn to for support is of the utmost importance. Seeking out professional help from qualified therapists should be encouraged.

The more we understand mental health, the better off our work as the servants of the Living God will be.

What Can We Do?

First, it’s important to note that mental health struggles are a normal part of life and there is nothing shameful about them. Everyone experiences some amount of trauma that needs processing. Everyone also goes through some form of grief, depression, or anxiety. 

Even Jesus wept

If you suspect that you have been struggling with any aspect of your mental health, please reach out to a trained professional who can help you assess and come up with a treatment plan.

If you have a loved one or a friend who struggles with their mental health, be a support for them. Let them know they are safe in your presence to speak about their feelings and experiences. And always encourage them to seek out professional help when it is needed.

And lastly: whether you are on the mission field or not, remember to prioritize your self-care. Get lots of rest, exercise regularly, and eat food that is nutritious for your body. Don’t forget to surround yourself with a supportive community that you can trust and lean on when you need them.

Mental Health Foundation
If your mental or emotional state quickly gets worse, or you’re worried about someone you know – help is available. You’re not alone; talk to someone you …