Focusing on the Whole Individual is One Key to Long-Term Health


According to recent statistics cited by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), persons with mental health issues and substance abuse disorders often die many years earlier than the average person—from fifteen to twenty-five on up to thirty-plus years earlier in some states.

Chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular disease are often left untreated, or are exacerbated by poor health habits, such as smoking, substance abuse, obesity, and/or a poor diet. For instance, a 2006 study by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD) revealed that seventy-five percent of individuals with addictions or mental illness smoke cigarettes, which is more than fifty percent greater than the general population.

These are serious issues for community mental health practitioners, and helping the person you support address their overall health is, or should be, a priority. Too often, however, a person with serious mental health issues, or even their health care practitioners, may focus almost exclusively on that illness, at the expense of their overall health. As we can see, the results can be devastating.

In an effort to help both health care practitioners and people with mental health issues focus on their overall well-being, Dr. Peggy Swarbrick, PhD, Director, Collaborative Support Programs of New Jersey (CSPNJ) Wellness Institute and Associate Professor, Rutgers University, developed a groundbreaking “holistic wellness dimension model”, featuring eight overall dimensions and six physical domains which, as its name implies, may help individuals view themselves as whole, in “mind, body, and spirit”. The eight dimensions Dr. Swarbrick identified are emotional, financial, social, spiritual, occupational, physical, intellectual, and environmental.

Since its development, many advocates and organizations are utilizing Dr. Swarbrick’s model, including the SAMHSA Wellness Campaign.

In an article in Behavioral Health News, Dr. Swarbrick observed that “[w]ellness is a conscious, deliberate process that requires a person to become aware of and make choices that help promote a more satisfying lifestyle.” The holistic wellness dimension model asks individuals to become aware of all of their lifestyle choices, each of which can impact a person’s life, positively or negatively. So while a person may not have control over whether or not they have a mental illness, they do have the ability to stop smoking, to exercise, to eat well, and so forth.

Tools such as Dr. Swarbrick’s holistic wellness dimension model are essential components in training to become a community mental health practitioner. The DirectCourse/College of Recovery and Community Inclusion course Introduction to Mental Health Recovery and Wellness, for which Dr. Swarbrick served as the National Editor, incorporates this focus on overall wellness, and examines in even greater detail these eight dimensions of wellness and SAMHSA’s Wellness Initiative. The course explores the role of the community mental health practitioner in supporting the development of recovery and wellness goals. It offers suggestions to advocate for and help individuals’ access necessary and competent medical care, as well as develop self-care skills to prevent and/or manage health and lifestyle concerns. The course identifies strategies that community mental health practitioners can implement to work collaboratively with individuals served – including a wellness assessment tool that can be used to help develop and support wellness goals across all eight dimensions, especially focusing on co-existing medical concerns.

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