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Mental illness is not just a psychological issue. The mind, the body, and the spirit are profoundly connected. And not only are the mind and body interconnected, so too are people with the families, the friends, and the communities they love and who love them. 

People live among others. Lives shape, and are shaped by, those around them. Humans work and play, love and learn, are members of private families and the larger human family. 

It is for this reason that an integrated approach to mental healthcare is so urgently needed. This article explores how a whole-person strategy for the treatment of mental illness is the key to finding hope and healing.

Living to the Label

According to recent estimates from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 1 in 5 Americans will experience some form of mental illness in a given year, and 1 in 25 will experience severe illness. Nevertheless, despite how common mental illness is, the stigma and the silence surrounding it persist, ravaging lives and relationships and contributing to untold deaths.

In addition to the social stereotyping and isolation that far too many with mental illness endure, they also often find themselves trapped in a healthcare system that little understands them or their needs. All too often, the mental healthcare system targets the diagnosis rather than treating the person. 

The patient all too readily becomes their disease. As a consequence, the individual and the community member are lost, hidden beneath, and suffocated by a diagnostic label. 

It is little wonder, then, that this traditional medical model has proven largely ineffective in the treatment of mental illness. Because mental illness does not exist in a vacuum. It impacts and is impacted by virtually every other aspect of the patient’s life, the physiological and the psychological, the social and the familial, the individual, and cultural.

One of the great tragedies of a mental illness diagnosis is not the diagnosis itself, but the degree to which society comes to define the person by their diagnosis. Author Michael Nangla describes the typical reactions of friends and family when they learned of his mental illness. 

Nangla writes that even his longest and strongest relationships were compromised when his “secret” was revealed. Friends began to pity and condescend him. Suddenly, even those closest to him began to treat him as though he were incompetent, needy, and as emotionally fragile as a Faberge egg. His every word, thought, deed, and mood was attributed to his illness. Michael no longer existed, only his diagnosis. Through no choice of his own, Nangla was forced to live to the label.

The Integrated Approach

This tendency to treat mental illness as determinative and all-encompassing means that mental illness is no longer simply approached as one aspect of the individual’s life. Rather, the illness is perceived as the entirety of the person’s life. And that turns it into a prison from which there is no escape. 

When the person becomes their illness there’s really no hope for treatment, remission, or cure. The patient can’t exist without the disease that defines them. And that is a damning fate.

Fortunately, the integrated care approach breaks down those confining walls by treating the whole person and not just the illness. This also means that an integrated approach will seek to understand how the illness links to other aspects of the patient’s life, including their work and relationships. The goal is to optimize the patient’s quality of life in all areas including social, cultural, and professional.

An example of this would be the increasing recognition among integrated care providers of the often strong relationship between mental illness and addiction. Integrated care providers are learning to understand addiction as rooted in mental illness. Further, these practitioners are exploring the impacts of addiction in exacerbating mental illness. 

Ultimately, for patients with comorbidities of addiction and mental illness, effective, integrated treatment must target both conditions simultaneously. This will arrest the vicious cycle in which one illness feeds on and into the other.

In addition to seeking care from a practitioner who seeks to nurture your well-being across all the important aspects of your life, from your relationships to your work life, it’s also vital that you practice the same kind of integrated self-care. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of defining yourself by your diagnosis.

But remember that you are far more than your illness. Self-care means nourishing your whole self, mind, body, and spirit. Take the time each day to cultivate your creativity and soothe your spirit. Turn off the electronics and go on a nature walk. Set aside time each afternoon for meditation or yoga. Consider journaling or taking up a hobby — dance classes, painting, golf. 

In short, make sure that you build a life for yourself outside of your illness and its treatment. Remember that you are more than a label and there is a bigger, brighter, bolder life waiting for you beyond your diagnosis.

The Takeaway

Despite its prevalence, mental illness remains far too stigmatized and much too little understood. That contributes to the tendency to define a person by their diagnosis. An integrated approach to mental healthcare, however, will provide help and hope. It will enable you to nourish your well being across all domains of your life, supporting you as you grow, heal, and thrive psychologically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.