The Treatment Of Physical Illness In People With Mental Illness

Although there have been quite a few advances in the treatment of medical and mental health conditions in recent years, individuals with mental illness still receive less than sufficient medical care in many settings. There are a disproportionate number of people with severe mental illnesses who die from preventable disease every year.

This is where social workers can help: as advocates for a population that is not receiving the type of medical care that they need.

The majority of illnesses that people with severe mental health conditions are dying from are treatable and preventable, such as cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, respiratory disease and infectious diseases (such as HIV/AIDS). Most of these health problems are worsened by unhealthy habits like smoking, low levels of physical activity, poor diet and substance abuse.

But if these health issues are treatable, why do people often not receive the help they need? There is a divide that separates mental health treatment from primary care. Each system of care is equipped to provide for specific health issues and, therefore, lacks the resources, knowledge and support to treat an individual with health concerns that span both mental health and primary care sectors.

The Center for Integrated Health Solutions, which is run by the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, is working to close the gap that exists between these two systems. They believe that the solution to this problem is integrated care: a model by which mental health issues and primary care issues are treated in the same health care settings. Additionally, where traditional mental health or primary care settings already exist, support and resources will be provided so they can work toward an integrated approach to care and better serve people with mental illness.

There are many ways that social workers can help to create a combination mental health/primary care experience. Both mental health and primary care settings need to have comprehensive integrated biopsychosocial screening and assessment processes. Social workers can help to develop these screenings and assessments in settings where they don’t exist, or they can help update and implement them in settings where they do. These assessments should include questions related to mental health, substance abuse, trauma and primary health care concerns and problems.

Social workers can provide further assistance in this process by observing and taking part in the assessment of patients and in the planning and implementation of care in primary care settings. They can participate in case conferences and rounds and provide a unique perspective from those of the primary care field.

In mental health care settings, social workers can help to integrate and implement primary health care education. They can provide wellness education centered around proper nutrition, exercise, quitting smoking and how to maintain a healthy lifestyle. They can also provide specific education about how to self manage common health conditions among people with mental illness, such as diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular issues. Another common challenge for people with mental illness is navigating the health care system; social workers can assist their clients with this complicated system and help the client get necessary treatment. When appropriate, the social worker can work with the client’s family to help them understand how to support their family member and help them carry out their integrated health care plan.

Social workers who are not specifically working in either of these health care sectors can also play a role in health care integration by advocating for the complete health care of their clients, no matter what the setting. Integrated health care is an important step forward for the health care system. It will benefit all people, not just those suffering from mental illnesses. Social workers can play an important role in making integrated care a reality.