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How Mental Healthcare Providers Can Help Make Treatment More Approachable

The first steps toward better mental health are often the most daunting, and for many people, knowing where to start is the biggest obstacle. Factor in a fear of being stigmatized, and it’s no wonder many people might find it more comfortable to go without care.

Even when you have the emotional bandwidth to start addressing your mental wellness, it can be challenging to find care. There’s an overwhelming lack of supply for the current demand in mental health services. In California alone, about 674 more mental health practitioners are needed to no longer have a shortage.

The truth is that about 39% of Americans reported symptoms of anxiety or depression during the Covid-19 pandemic in February 2021. That doesn’t include the impact of other mental health conditions, such as PTSD, addiction and pre-pandemic mental health disorders.

Suffering in silence (whether due to stigma, cultural barriers, lack of coverage or a shortage of providers) is a reality for many. Finding and meeting with a psychiatrist or therapist can feel like an impossible step into the great unknown. And, with this harsh landscape, some people might find it easier to focus on the things they can control, such as going to the gym, eating right and getting a good night’s sleep.

Some healthcare providers might view an increased interest in external factors as a distraction, but for some people, fitness and other wellness-focused behaviors can help them create a new front door to mental health. As a healthcare provider, it’s important to recognize that everyone’s lived experience is different and that starting small and implementing healthy external practices can make the great unknown a little less intimidating. By understanding this connection, healthcare providers can better support a patient’s whole-person health from the beginning.

For providers to begin addressing the increase in mental health issues, I believe the first step is to recognize the importance of someone’s lived experience. There are many paths people can use to find help, well beyond the traditional first step of contacting an insurance provider or general practitioner. In my experience, some people find inspiration in their peers, others on social media; many people even find their way to emotional health by starting with physical health. After all, physical and mental health are not separate; they are intimately related. Movement has been known to help ease some mental health symptoms, and exercise can help create routine, distract from negative thoughts and positively reinforce healthy reward signals.

Healthcare providers can also take steps to help remove barriers and increase access to mental health services. Consider offering group fitness activities, for example, or wellness plans in-house as part of your treatment modalities. In my experience, clients are more likely to try out new services under the same brand or umbrella they know and love. In addition to successfully promoting and encouraging mental and physical wellness, offering a wider variety of services can improve the bottom line.

Some providers, my own company included, are already making these shifts. Still, I’ve observed that many other mental health providers rarely cross over into the fitness realm. I believe the next wave of innovative healthcare will go beyond basic physical healthcare to incorporate mental health, physical fitness and even emotional healing to address people’s needs holistically.

Alternatively, healthcare providers can consider partnering with like-minded fitness studios and offer mutually beneficial discounts to help more people cross the initial threshold. This approach can help lower the intimidation and make treatment more accessible. To ensure these partnerships are a success, both healthcare providers and fitness studios need to recognize the importance of whole-person health and communicate that effectively to patients and participants. By making physical and mental health a priority within one realm, it opens the door to the other. A good partnership would require that both facilities understand and respect this connection.

Clients at physical wellness centers such as spas, gyms and fitness studios participate in physical activity and can also benefit from new opportunities for social interaction. This bridges the gap between physical health and emotional wellness. But what if we could add more entry points? Could educational facilities, workplaces and even entertainment hubs eventually become new front doors to mental health? This begins with continuing to break down the stigma and fear associated with mental healthcare and actively discussing whole-person health within the workplace and within personal communities.

As an industry, I believe we must consider how our specialties contribute to a person physically and mentally and do a better job of meeting people where they are. Working toward dismantling the barriers to mental health treatment is not an easy task. But we can begin to chip away at the obstacles by opening new doors to treatment, normalizing conversations around mental health and making treatment more approachable.

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