An Interconnected Challenge: Physical Health in the Shadow of Mental Illness

Mental health challenges impact far more than the brain. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), individuals living with a serious mental illness have an increased risk for chronic disease—in some cases, a greatly elevated risk. For example, they are nearly twice as likely to develop cardiovascular and metabolic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. And, adding to this struggle are the numerous ways that dealing with a mental illness makes it more challenging to pursue good overall heath.

This interconnected challenge leads not only to lower quality of life, but shorter length of life. NAMI reports that the life expectancy of people diagnosed with serious mental illness is 11-30 years shorter than that of the general population.

Mental and physical health are connected in countless ways that can compound challenges impacting the body and the brain alike. For instance, chronic pain can lead to poor sleep, which can contribute to anxiety and worsen existing mental health conditions. Conversely, those living with mental illness are more likely to experience insomnia, and chronic lack of sleep increases sensitivity to pain and raises risk of heart disease and numerous other conditions.

For those dealing with life-altering mental health challenges, the interwoven struggle of addressing mental and physical issues is especially pronounced. Below are several common barriers that stand between them and good health.


For many who live with serious mental illnesses, holding a job is incredibly difficult or impossible. The majority rely on public assistance, which for people like members of The Well Community amounts to $794 per month for an eligible individual or $1,191 for an eligible individual with an eligible spouse. As a result, many see firsthand how poverty compounds the struggles of both mental illness and poor physical health in countless ways, including increasing the risk for homelessness and severely limiting access to nutritious food.


Despite great strides in the battle against stigma, those dealing with mental illness still face negative attitudes and untrue assumptions that can hinder them from seeking and receiving quality care. As patients, they may be subject to beliefs that their symptoms are “all in their heads” and feel dismissed when sharing their concerns; and negative past experiences can prevent them from seeing a doctor when care is needed.


Paranoia can be a symptom of numerous mental illnesses, and it can manifest as distrust or fear of health care professionals. An individual may believe doctors are trying to harm them, and as a result refuse care or abstain from seeking it even when they are very ill.

Lack of Access to Care

Many times, those who want care find it’s out of reach due to financial and logistical factors. Individuals suffering from serious mental illnesses are more likely to be uninsured or to rely on public insurance; but even those who are insured face significant barriers. For example, seeing an in-network provider may require travel that’s not possible via public transportation; and without the resources to pay for a visit with an out-out-network doctor, they’re forced to forgo appointments that could detect problems early and help manage chronic conditions.

Struggles With Side Effects

Many of the medicines that are helpful in managing mental illness have side effects that can be detrimental to the body. For example, some drugs can cause weight gain or insomnia, and others carry the risk of developing tics or tremors. In many cases, an individual has to weigh the benefits of treatments that help to mitigate their symptoms against the cost to their overall health.


Due to many of the above factors, those dealing with serious mental illness are at higher risk for neglecting to follow a treatment plan. For example, lack of funds may lead them to skip refilling a prescription and distrust of health care providers can cause them to hesitate to show up at a follow-up appointment. In addition, some may struggle to comprehend or recall the instructions they are given. In all of these cases, noncompliance prevents the health care they receive from having an impact beyond the doctor’s office.

All of these factors are common among members of The Well Community. But at The Well, those living with serious mental illnesses find a supportive environment that can help them pursue not only mental health stability but overall wellness. Caring staff members help them access resources available to them, and they benefit from nutritious meals and the friendship of others who understand their struggles. Your gift helps them pursue health amid interconnected challenges. Give today.

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