Mental health problems that go untreated for long periods of times can not only become worse but also cause a plethora of other problems. These problems can affect an individual's entire life from his health to his social life and job.

The consequences of untreated mental health problems

Despite the huge increase in awareness as well as multiple campaigns each year, when it comes to mental health we still have a long way to go. Sure, stigma has decreased over the years and people don’t look down on others based on their mental health condition but this is still just surface level improvement. That’s because despite all this, people are still less inclined to seek mental health treatment or even talk about it. People often lie about having any mental health issues when it comes to the possibility of affecting their job or how they are perceived by their coworkers.

a file cabinet with mental health conditions and disorders

Employers are perceived, even if they are not, as being unwilling to keep an employee with mental health problems regardless of how much it affects their work or not. There is also, despite all the publicity online and offline, a lot of ignorance surrounding mental health. There is a general lack of interest among a large portion of the population when it comes to mental health. Because of this many people live their entire lives without ever being diagnosed or ever seeking help for their problems.

But living for long period of times with a mental health disorder can have serious consequences. There are numerous adverse effects that can happen because of prolonged mental health problems which are left untreated. Some of them affect the mind and others the body but they are all inextricably linked between each other. Let’s start with how the mind is affected over long period of times.

Detrimental effects on the mind

Even though these effects are mostly mental related, they will also affect the body because of the changes in behavior. The first effect should come as no surprise. It is the worsening of the mental illness. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, phobias and all other mental illnesses can potentially worsen over time if left untreated. Effects will range from increasing in auto-isolator behavior, where the individual will isolate more and more from society loosing or cutting off contact with everyone from their lives to erratic and unpredictable actions including self-harm or violence towards other people. Nightmares and a severe lack of focus can also set in.

Woman looking out a window suffering from some form of a mental health problem

Other symptoms will include the decrease in the drive to exercise, the need for social interactions, the need to eat and many others. Our daily lives depend so much on our state of mind that everything is influenced by how we feel: from the breakfast that we eat, the route we take to work, the words we speak to our family and colleagues, how diligently we do our work to how early we go to sleep and how good our sleep actually is. For a person suffering from severe depression all of these will be affected negatively in some way or another and all of them will be getting worse. Not to mention that severe mental health problems can lead to suicide.

Detrimental effects on the body

As mentioned above our state of mind has very real consequences that directly affects our everyday life and our body. But to get into the specifics of it here are a couple of examples. Anxiety has been shown to weaken the immune system. Anxiety usually manifests by triggering your flight-or-fight response to what the person suffering from it perceives as an intense situation. The flight-or-fight response translates into your brain flooding your body with chemicals as a response to danger. Adrenaline is the most know chemical which will be released.

chart with a human body and the effect of stress and anxiety on different parts of the body

In response to these chemicals flooding your body, your pulse and respiration gets amplified. This in turn increases the flow of oxygen to your brain. The flight-or-fight instinct prepares you to respond to a potential dangerous or intense situation, after which, ideally the body should return to its normal state. But this doesn’t happen to people who suffer from anxiety disorder. For chronic or long-term anxiety patients, the body never returns to its normal state on its own. The constant flooding of hormones as well as the increase rate of breathing and pulse damage your immune system. Of course, this is not the only effect of anxiety on your body but it might be the most dangerous.

Among the symptoms of other mental health problems on the body we cannot discount Psoriasis which is a result of chronic stress. Currently in the US only, there are over 7.5 million people affected by Psoriasis which is a skin condition that cannot be fully treated and only managed. In severe cases this condition can affect 90% of the body and impede people from any normal activities.

What can we do looking forward?

As we can see people with mental health disorders are at risk of damaging not only their mind but their bodies as well. This is also true since such individuals are more prone to smoking and substance abuse, from alcohol to other more dangerous drugs. There is a reason that we have the saying: “a healthy mind lives in a healthy body”. Even if it’s not necessarily true all the time, health does start with the mind, that’s why mental health is so important and needs to be taken a lot more seriously. Specific steps on future direction can be hard to pin point. More engaging online communities centered around group therapy and helping those that feel less adapted to social life making them either awkward, embarrassed or afraid to communicate with people in real life could be a starting point. Of course this is by no means a unique approach but it could improve the honesty or sincerity of the campaign for mental health awareness spreading optimism rather than showcasing only the ugly parts.

picture shows a family of four looking into the distance at a sunset in a field of grass

There is still a lack of information to put it mildly or simply said, ignorance, surrounding the subject of mental health. Whilst most people are aware that mental health problems do exist and a lot also suffer from different disorders, it is still generally disregarded as a topic for treatment. When people talk about getting treatment they usually refer to an affliction of the body since they don’t believe that an affliction of the mind is “real” in the true sense of the word or as serious. It may take a long time to change this mentality and make people seek mental health help more often but it is something that we all, as a society must strive to do.

But just telling people that they should seek help is not going to cut it. In order to really help them we must offer solutions to the problems plaguing the current mental health system and institutions. Finding an affordable and accessible alternative to what we have now seems to be the way to go. The lack of anonymity (since you need to meet face to face with your therapist in most cases) is also a deterrent for some people. Looking at the progress made with the implementation of VR in solving mental health disorders this seems to be a possible way forwards that can not only give people access a lot easier but also be more affordable and anonymous at the same time. What we can do as a society is support these innovations since they could be the solution we desperately need in order to improve the current congested, unaffordable, lacking in access, mental health system.

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Julian Sanda
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