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Bridging the Gap Between Mental and Physical Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach

Betty Vreeland, MSN, APRN, NP-C, BC

Published: April 16, 2007

Article Abstract

People with serious mental illnesses have higher rates of morbidity and premature mortality compared with the general population. This population loses from 13 to over 20 years of life compared with their nonpsychiatric cohorts. A multitude of factors contribute to this silent tragedy. A major problem is that multiple barriers exist, making it difficult for individuals with serious mental illness to access quality health care. Additionally, compared with the average American, people with serious mental illness are more likely to engage in unhealthy lifestyle practices, such as lack of regular physical activity, poor nutrition and overeating, smoking and other substance abuse, irregular and inadequate sleep, and failure to visit health care practitioners regularly. These unhealthy behaviors and the added burden of antipsychotic medication side effects increase the risk for cardiac and metabolic diseases. However, best-practice models exist that provide the knowledge and tools to assist people with serious mental illness in making informed decisions about healthier lifestyle behaviors, including addressing tobacco use and excess weight. The challenge is how to integrate these practices effectively into routine behavioral health care. The growing problem of premature death calls for urgent public action to transform the current mental health care system into a more integrated system of care. Because of their holistic training and approach to care, nurses are well prepared to work collaboratively with both mental and physical health care providers and systems. In the new mental health care system, both psychiatric and physical health care providers will need to broaden their treatment paradigm to address the whole person. An integral part of behavioral health services will be to ensure that the health status of all individuals is assessed, that there are medical monitoring protocols in place for people taking antipsychotic medication, that each individual has a primary care provider, and that there is an effective mechanism in place for communication between behavioral health and primary care providers. A transformation of the existing mental health care system toward a system that utilizes a coordinated, multidisciplinary, holistic approach not only may effectively bridge the existing gap between mental and physical health, but also may ultimately save lives.

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