Dr. Elaine Batchlor (File Photo)

Modern life is complex and full of stressors, and nearly all of us go through difficult times.

Some of us struggle with the daily stress of making ends meet, working long hours and even multiple jobs while raising kids and facing rising costs of living. Some of us are reeling from a devastating life change—the loss of a loved one, the end of a relationship, the shock of a scary medical diagnosis—and need emotional support.

In all of these situations, good mental health care can help. It’s a basic truth about human beings that we benefit from emotional support, especially in times of stress. But often, we don’t reach out for help with our mental health in the same way we do when we have a physical illness. Fortunately, that is starting to change.

More and more in our health care system, we are recognizing the power of treating mental and physical health together. Gov. Newsom has made the transformation of our mental health system a campaign priority. He recently announced new programs and funding for mental health, including treating physical and mental health together. This new integrated approach is an important and powerful way to improve overall health.

Research shows that people with untreated mental illness have, on average, a reduction in life expectancy ranging from 10-25 years. This is largely because mental health challenges get in the way of them taking care of physical health. When you’re dealing with mental illness, it’s hard to get the care you need, to follow medication guidelines consistently, and to advocate for yourself.

When we don’t admit we’re having difficulty coping or make an effort to get help, we sometimes turn to other solutions to try to manage the stress. Some of us try to ignore it. Smoking, drinking, overeating and substance abuse can be a way to cover up an underlying need for mental health care to deal with trauma or stress. We know that these coping mechanisms don’t work in the long run, and they take a heavy toll on physical health as well as the families and loved ones around us.

We treat a lot of patients at our hospital with multiple medical conditions in addition to substance abuse and/or mental health problems. Sometimes they are directly related, such as patients with heart and lung disease caused by heavy drug and alcohol use. In order to get ahead of the medical problems, we also have to deal with mental health.

That’s why we are building a team to bring mental and physical health care together in how we treat patients at MLK Community Hospital.

At our clinics and in our emergency department, these new teams will screen our patients with chronic health conditions for unmet mental health and substance abuse issues, and step in to provide support. They will include social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, licensed marriage and family therapists, substance abuse counselors and doctors who specialize in addiction medicine—all working together to treat a patient’s overall health.

Another valuable tool for those with life-changing chronic conditions such as diabetes or substance abuse is peer support. It’s really powerful when you can learn from someone who knows what you’re going through. Someone who can say, “I’ve had diabetes for five years, let me tell you how I manage it. I know it sounds devastating and hard to handle, but I’m living proof that you can do this.”

The power of emotional support really hit home for me recently, after a family member had a stroke. Her health care provider sent someone to the house to help her with balance and walking. Before he began his work, he sat down with her and asked her how she was doing. He asked how she felt about her health challenges, and whether or not she felt like she was able to manage.

She told me afterward how supported she felt by that. She had been through cancer and other serious illnesses, and this was the first time someone one on her health care team had simply sat down and said: Let’s talk about how you’re doing.

People are resilient. We adapt over time to change and challenges, but sometimes we need help to cope, whether through trained caregivers, doctors and therapists, our peers, or, ideally a combination of both.

We can each be part of the change by asking for help when we need it, and making sure our friends and family do the same.

I’m hopeful that this new approach to treating mental and physical health together is going to be transformational for our community.

Dr. Elaine Batchlor is the chief executive officer of Martin Luther King, Jr. Community Hospital in Watts.

Share your feedback, questions, comments and stories with Dr. Batchlor at [email protected].