Can a Sense of Community Help Cure Common Maladies?

The mind and body are on the same team.

So why does the health care system treat them so differently?

A division between mental and physical health has created a crisis across the nation, says Benjamin Miller, a Denver psychologist and health policy expert.

“We’ve had a culture that’s artificially separated out mental health to be its own thing,”  he said. People don’t want to be treated as pieces. They want to be treated as a whole.”

Although he argues for a more comprehensive approach to physical and emotional wellness in the health care system, Miller doesn’t believe that the cure will be found in the exam room.

As keynote speaker, Miller will talk about the power of personal relationships to transform health at the annual health summit, At the Edge of Amazing, Sept. 19. The conference is hosted by Providence Institute for a Healthier Community.

Community building is this year’s theme, The Courage 2 Care. Panelists will present their findings on ways that community engagement can promote individual health.

“It doesn’t mean you don’t need a high-functioning hospital,” Miller said. “But what if we shifted our resources, and invested in communities? That might be a bigger bang for our collective buck.”

The conference, a one-day event held at the Lynnwood Convention Center, is for health care workers, civic leaders and policy makers to network, share expertise and discuss innovative solutions to health issues in Snohomish County.

When he was practicing psychology, Miller pondered the symptoms and root causes of health issues and the lack of attention that mental health received.

“I describe myself as a fragmentation fighter,” he said. “My career has been spent bridging the gap between mental and physical health.”

To delve into that fragmentation on a broader level, he shifted from academia to health policy. He directed a health policy institute at the University of Colorado and served on boards for numerous grant foundations.

Miller is the chief policy officer for Providence Health-backed foundation Well Being Trust, which scouts and funds nationwide initiatives that tackle barriers to health and help combine mental and physical health services.

Apart from a fragmentation in the health care system, Miller believes that the psychological value of interpersonal relationships has been ignored.

Cultural stigma has made people less likely to report symptoms of possible mental health issues, though they’re less alone than they might think.

“Forty-six percent of individuals will have a mental health need in their lifetime, and 67 percent of individuals with a mental health need get no care.” Miller said. “We have fundamentally failed individuals that have a mental health need.”

Miller warns that ignoring the problem will only worsen it.

“The more that we ignore mental health, the more likely we are to get poorer outcomes in our health,” he said.

And it’s not just the individual that suffers.

The consequences of untreated mental health are higher costs in their health care system. There’s also a societal cost that our employers will carry because these individuals have unaddressed needs. In the employer community, the No. 1 health issue that they pay the most on is depression.

The effects of untreated mental health are not only felt within families, but also between co-workers. Before long, the ripple effect can spread through an entire community.

“There’s this cost that’s a little harder to measure, when people that have these needs go untreated,” Miller said. “If they stop cutting their yard or going to the block party or they stop talking to their friends or their family, there’s a major issue with that. That isn’t quantifiable,  it’s just felt.”

It’s a nationwide phenomenon.

“We’ve had an erosion of community, where you can live on the same block as someone for five years and not even know their name anymore,” he said. “That was unheard of 30, 40, 50 years ago. We’ve got to address what it means to have a community, and have a community responsible for wellness.”

Change starts with ground-level interactions and services.

“Are you able to safely go out at night and walk? Do you have the ability to go out and communicate with people around you? Do you have a block party where people go out of their houses and they come together and share stories about themselves?” Miller asked.

“That, to me, is going to be the solution to improving the health of this nation. It is not going to be found in health care.”

Neighbors should get to know and advocate for one another.

“We’re all patients at a certain point,” Miller said. Policy is everyone’s responsibility.”

This year’s Edge of Amazing will include sessions on measuring emotional well-being on a clinical level and coordinating community efforts to confront specific issues, including housing shortages and opioid addiction.

Psychologist Ben Miller says cultural stigma has made people less likely to report symptoms of possible mental health issues.

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