Posted on Mon, 2 May 11
Healthy lifestyle changes may be as effective or superior to medication for mental illness yet modern treatment tends to favour drugs. The way we care for mental health needs to change.
In a recent review of the evidence Dr Roger Walsh from the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour, University of California argues that “health professionals have significantly underestimated the importance of lifestyle for mental health.”
There is considerable evidence to show that unhealthy lifestyle behaviours such as smoking, lack of exercise, social isolation, bad food choices, and poor stress management are major contributors to mental illness. Furthermore, lifestyle changes are an effective way to improve mental health. However this evidence is largely neglected and people suffering from mental illness are unlikely to receive TLC as part of their treatment.
“TLCs are sometimes as effective as either psychotherapy or pharmacotherapy and can offer significant therapeutic advantages” points out Dr Walsh. “Important TLCs include exercise, nutrition and diet, time in nature, relationships, recreation, relaxation and stress management, religious or spiritual involvement, and service to others”
Are you on drugs?
However “economic and institutional pressures are pushing therapists of all persuasions toward briefer, more stylized interventions” says Dr Walsh. “Psychiatrists in particular are being pressured to offer less psychotherapy, prescribe more drugs, and focus on 15-minute “med checks,” a pressure that psychologists who obtain prescription privileges will doubtless also face.”
The path ahead
Helping sufferers of mental illness achieve healthy lifestyle changes in a medical system that is ill-equipped to do so and in a society that encourages unhealthy habits is no small feat. Large scale shifts in education, medical practice and government policy will need to occur.
Though this may be an enormous task the equally large cost of mental illness to wellbeing and the economy certainly justifies the shift towards TLC as a complementary treatment option. As Dr Walsh says “in the 21st century, therapeutic lifestyles may need to be a central focus of mental, medical, and public health.”
Walsh R. Lifestyle and mental health. Am Psychol. 2011 Jan 17. [Epub ahead of print]