A new emphasis on mental and emotional well-being in healthcare

That diet and exercise are important pillars of good health is common knowledge, even among those who don’t necessarily follow suit. But when it comes to caring for their mental and emotional well-being, most people remain largely in the dark. According to the current U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, it is time to pay greater attention to the treatment of mental and emotional conditions, which he considers as crucial as all other forms of healthcare.

Mental illness is responsible for more disabilities than any other group of illness, Murthy says. A lot of people with mental and emotional problems may not feel comfortable talking about them or seeking professional help. But in the absence of mental and emotional health, it is impossible for people to properly function and reach their full potential.

Oftentimes people mistake mental and emotional disturbances for lack of intelligence or disability. That is far from what the facts tell us, according to the Surgeon General. Mental and emotional dysfunctions can have countless causes, some of which can be addressed relatively easily. Chronic stress, sleep deprivation, traumatic experiences – all well-known culprits that can wreak havoc on both body and mind – can be successfully treated with appropriate countermeasures, sometimes even with a few adjustments in behavior and lifestyle habits.

Many of the mental and emotional damages people suffer from have been inflicted early in life. Negative childhood experiences can lead to lasting consequences later on and sometimes persist for a lifetime. By contrast, fostering emotional wellbeing in the earliest stages of life through skilled parenting can be instrumental in building a solid foundation for overall health throughout adolescence and adulthood, according to the Surgeon General’s recommendations.

Like most other illnesses, mental and emotional health issues don’t occur in isolation. They are affected by multiple environmental and social factors, by personal choices and habits, by events and circumstances beyond an individual’s control. Any effective form of treatment must take all of these possibilities into account.

For this reason, the Surgeon General’s office (then under former Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin) commissioned a plan to improve the health of citizens on every level and at every stage in life, and titled it “The National Preventive Strategy,” which was released in 2011. The National Prevention Council, consisting of more than a dozen health departments and agencies, authored the final report with emphasis on proactive healthcare measures whenever possible, including for mental and emotional concerns.

Surgeon General Murthy takes his views on the importance of mental and emotional health even further by adding happiness and inner peace to the equation as health-promoting states of mind, which can be attained through yoga, meditation and other exercises.

Besides healthy nutrition and physical exercise, we must look at other components that constitute wellness, including mindfulness and feelings of gratitude and satisfaction, he says in an interview with Huffington Post. Happy people live longer, are less stressed, and have lower levels of inflammation and heart disease. Happiness can change health in ways we never even imagined, he says.

Sounds like a plan.

TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.