When you have mental and physical health problems, your mind often takes a back seat

(Picture: Ella Byworth for

In my old GP’s surgery, appointments were five minutes.

If you wanted to speak about more than one thing you had to request a double appointment, and for anything more than that you had to come back another time.

When I had contraception questions, period issues, weird bruises that wouldn’t leave my body, and the odd cough/cold/back pain, these things dominated my time.

Despite the fact that I would often be extremely low and in need of mental health support, physical issues took priority.

The rest can wait I told myself, as my mental health slowly declined in the background.

After all, problems with your body are tangible and easy to explain.

‘Yep, push there and it hurts.’ ‘This cough has lasted exactly two weeks and four days,’ or ‘I fell and now there’s a pain here.’

Mental illness doesn’t quite have that easy cause and effect diagnosis, and it feels a lot simpler to put it on the back burner when there are other things going on.

When I did eventually seek help for my mind, I felt guilty. Sitting in the waiting room looking at people with arms in slings and spluttering into hankies.

(Picture: Liberty Antonia Sadler for

As Hannah Jane Parkinson brilliantly outlined in The Guardian last week, mental illness isn’t like a broken leg. It’s messier, it’s harder to fix, you can’t see it on an x-ray.

This is less about the stigma of mental illness in the wider world (which undoubtedly still exists in many ways), but more about how it feels like more of a burden to the NHS.

Telling someone you’ve got a physical issue takes you from A to B with a letter to give your employer as to why you weren’t in the office, and a referral to a specialist or a packet of something to make it better.

When going through diagnoses for brain stuff, I’ve cried to doctor after doctor, each of them trying not to wince at my snotty nose and clumpy, wet mascara.

I truly hated being that vulnerable in front of people I’d never met, eating into the time that I felt could be better used on someone with ‘real’ problems.

I would 100% rather have someone poking about my cervix for a smear than asking my why I want to kill myself.

And this is all from someone who writes about the importance of mental health treatment and intervention for a living.

Due to this presumption that mental health problems are harder to diagnose and treat, I didn’t see the doctor for them for a long time.

Ironically, refusing to get help for my depression and anxiety and focusing on my other issues has had the opposite effect of making me better.

If there’s anything anxiety sufferers know about the nature of the beast, it’s that leaving things by the wayside will generally only cause things to snowball.

(Picture: Ella Byworth for

The more I stuffed my feelings down, the more I pushed people away. The more I pushed people away, the more isolated I became.

I felt like a complete failure and didn’t see a way out – and all because I felt like my physical health was ‘more important’.

In an ideal world, physical health problems would be given the same priority as mental ones – both in our own minds and by the powers that be.

Stigma is becoming less of a problem nowadays in society thanks to a number of public campaigns, but mental health treatment isn’t yet given parity of esteem (equal funding and value to physical issues).

The government has set a target of 2020 to the point where both have the same gravity in funding, diagnosis, and treatment, but that feels very far off at the moment.

A report for the NHS in 2013 found that, of those with diabetes or hypertension, 90% of people were in treatment. Of those with depression and anxiety, only 25% of people were.

The author – Martin McShane – calls it ‘binocular vision’; where we look at physical and mental health through different eyes.

The late professor Helen Lester advocated for longer GP appointments to help medical professionals properly assess the situation.

This is not only to care for patients’ mental wellbeing, but to ascertain if there were physical issues linked to their mental illness. For example, those with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are at a much higher risk of cardiovascular problems, so should be given blood pressure checks as part of their consultation.

Her recommendations include simple changes, such as making sure mental health patients see the same doctor every time (and don’t have to repeat their medical history over and over while in a vulnerable state) and offering those with psychosis priority.

I’m not the only one that puts my physical health before my mental health even though I know it’s counterproductive.

And, while those of us who hold this belief that one is more important than the other need to work that out with ourselves, it’s also up to NHS policymakers to understand why people might not prioritise certain issues and aim to bypass these obstacles.

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