Skip to content Skip to navigation

Positive mental health can make a physical difference

September 12, 2011
by Ron Manderscheid, PhD, Executive Director, NACBHDD
| Reprints
CDC report opens door to study of mental determinants of physical health

Mental health is finally as important as mental illness. Thanks to the Division of Adult and Community Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, important work is underway to define, measure, and develop public health interventions that will promote positive mental health.

Amazingly, we have never before examined the effects of positive mental health in mitigating mental or physical illnesses. As you know, many persons with mental illnesses also suffer from other chronic diseases. In fact, they are likely to die 25 years younger than other Americans because of chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. We need to know the role that positive mental health plays in preventing or delaying the onset of these chronic illnesses, as well as the role that it plays in mental illness.

Almost 30 years ago, we undertook conceptual work that shows health and disease to be two separate dimensions. The new CDC work on positive mental health and mental illness reaffirms our earlier analysis. CDC has just released a Public Health Action Plan to Integrate Mental Health Promotion and Mental Illness Prevention with Chronic Disease, 2011-2015. This document highlights the importance of mental health promotion and mental illness prevention; it can be accessed at http://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/.

What is the CDC actually doing? Under the leadership of Dr. Wayne Giles and Dr. Letitia Presley Cantrell, the CDC has developed a strategic plan to incorporate mental health and mental illness interventions into public health programs. I cannot overstate the importance of this work, since public health has not had a strong focus on either mental health or mental illness in the past.

The CDC strategic plan approaches mental health and mental illness through a public health model. Key steps in the plan include surveillance, epidemiology, communication, training, intervention, and policy.

Surveillance will involve measurement of positive mental health, mental illness, and physical disease. Epidemiology will go the next step: What are the social determinants, the risk factors, and the protective factors for positive mental health compared with mental illness? Further, how do these factors also predict physical illness?

Communication strategies will identify the messages about positive mental health that need to be directed to persons with serious mental illnesses, persons with other mental illnesses, and persons without a mental illness. Training strategies will also be directed toward these groups. A parallel effort will be made to train public health, primary care, and mental health providers in the strategies to promote positrive mental health. We can anticipate that this work will help to accelerate advances in work already underway in the field on wellness and recovery.

At its zenith, the CDC strategy proposes to introduce population-based public health interventions that will promote positive mental health. We do need to participate in this work. What better way to do this than to collaborate with our public health colleagues at CDC?

Our hats are off to Dr. Giles and Dr. Cantrell, and to the other CDC staff for their vision and their courage to undertake this very important work on positive mental health. We believe that this work holds exceptional promise for the future of our field, as well as for our future national policy.

Topics