Nursing and the link between physical and mental health

Nursing and the link between physical and mental health

Mental healthcare has never been more critical in the US, nor as widespread as it is today. Of the millions of people who work in mental health, psychiatric mental health nurse practitioners (PMHNPs) are indeed on the frontlines, helping patients struggling with a wide variety of mental health concerns. One of the most significant responsibilities PMHNPs must take on is educating their patients. There are a few reasons why this is so important and why it can be so challenging. First, let’s talk about how mental and physical health are tied and why understanding that link is crucial to patients and their loved ones.

What is the link between physical and mental health?

The relationship between physical health and mental health has become a hot topic in the broader health and medicine community. We have known for years that a strong link exists between them but, until recently, not much research has been conducted into exactly how that connection functions. How does mental health affect physical health and vice versa?

A 2017 study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that the connection goes both ways. Mental health has direct and indirect impacts on physical health, and physical health also directly and indirectly impacts mental health. This means that someone who is already depressed or struggling with other forms of mental illness is more likely to develop preventable health conditions. Someone who is already struggling with some physical health condition is also more likely to develop mental health difficulties.

More specifically, the study found that indirect effects for both kinds of health explain 8% of the effect of past physical health concerns on mental health and 10% of the past effects of mental health on physical health. Another 2017 study, this time published in the Journal of the Economics of Ageing, found similar results. Researchers also reported that past mental health had a stronger impact on present physical health than education or physical activity. Similarly, they found that better past physical health had a stronger impact on present mental health than income, education or investments.

In both cases, as well as in many other studies and reports echoing these findings, the relationship between mental and physical health is clear. The way you feel physically affects how you feel mentally, and if you are sick or otherwise struggling physically, you may struggle mentally. This means that both types of health need to be considered to provide comprehensive care with the best chance of success. PMHNPs take care of educating their mental health patients on the interaction between the two and why caring for both at the same time can be an instrumental part of recovery and treatment.

Why does the link between physical and mental health matter?

We know that physical and mental health are linked, but does the connection make a big enough impact to be worthwhile exploring? The answer here is “yes, absolutely”. When we talk about how past mental health impacts current physical health and vice versa, you might envision specific incidents that significantly affected both. In reality, this connection doesn’t just turn off. Even when you can’t point to a big mental health episode that you think would impact your physical health, the influence is nonetheless likely to be there. It’s a steady connection and, if you aren’t actively caring for one element of your health, it will likely impact the other.

If you are struggling with a mental health issue, you might find that improving your physical fitness helps your mental wellness. Physical activity was found to help improve various disorders as well as lead to higher-quality sleep, according to a 2023 study published in the Cureus Journal of Medical Science. Better sleep and higher levels of sustained energy promote good mental health. Good mental health, in turn, leads to an improvement in physical activity. In this way, both mental and physical health have a synergistic relationship. When one improves, both improve. When one fails, both fail. That’s why it is so important to keep your physical health in mind when you are seeking treatment for your mental health.

PMHNPs understand that many people aren’t aware of the relationship between their mental health and their physical health. That’s why their goal is to help patients understand the way one leads to the other.

Learning to educate

Now that we know about the importance of PMHNPs in health education, let’s talk about how you can learn cutting-edge techniques to make educating patients, loved ones and their communities easier and more effective.

Because PMHNPs and the education they provide are crucial to a healthy nation, many schools offer programs and degrees designed to help aspiring professionals learn everything they need to thrive. Online Psych NP programs, for example, are provided at well-respected educational institutions such as Wilkes University. There are a few ways someone can enter into this course, this can be via RN to MSN, MSN or Post-Graduate/APRN Certificate. Their program focuses on turning today’s students into tomorrow’s highly effective care providers. In addition to working towards an online Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), you might watch extra-curricular training programs to practice what you’ve learned and hone your skills.

Educating patients about physical and mental health

To give patients the best chance of improving their mental health as possible, PMHNPs and other mental health professionals must be able to educate them about both their mental and physical health successfully. While the focus of much of the education is centered around mental health, of course, psychiatric and psychological care providers also explain the intersection of both elements of their overall health. To do this, they use various tools at their disposal, ranging from infographics to in-person group exercises and everything in between.

In this section, we’ll explore the way PMHNPs use infographics, training plans and group exercises to provide their patients with comprehensive health education.


“Infographics” are graphics, as the name suggests, that are typically, but not always, digital. They use a visual medium to transmit information and data. The chances are good that you’ve seen infographics online or even in your doctor’s office, if you’ve ever seen an image with statistics and other figures broken down simply and clearly,

Infographics play a big role in healthcare. These powerful digital tools give patients the knowledge they need to understand not only their own health but also related health concerns, such as:

  • Specific diseases
  • Trending healthcare topics
  • Procedures

The goal when using infographics is to break down sometimes dense information and data into an easily digestible form. Instead of reading out a study abstract, for example, or directing patients to raw data, infographics take the most important information, interpret it, and state it clearly without a lot of technical jargon. This makes the data easy to understand for patients and makes it both more impactful as a result and also more effective.

PMHNPs use infographics designed for specific mental health and physical health concerns which are relevant to their patient’s unique needs. A patient with depression and diabetes, for example, might receive infographics that explain how their mental health condition can impact their energy levels and even their taste buds, leading them to eat poorly and adopt a sedentary lifestyle. All of this, in turn, leads to a potential worsening of diabetes. Of course, as the patient’s diabetes worsens, mental health might decline in tandem. The infographic will outline this information, break down important figures related to that information, and give the patient future steps to take to learn more.

Training plans

Another educational tool used by PMHNPs is the training plan. Mental Health Awareness Training (MHAT) is a program that prepares patients, their loved ones and the broader community on how to respond safely and appropriately to people who are struggling with serious mental illnesses and/or serious emotional disturbances. MHAT offers these people the skills, resources, knowledge and confidence needed to take hold of a chaotic situation and make safe choices that promote mental health and overall well-being for everyone involved.

Patients might receive a training plan that offers them more detailed information about their potential struggles with the mental health condition in question. Some PMHNPs will focus on educating patients about both their current symptoms and the potential for escalation and what kinds of symptoms to watch for in the future. In addition to recognizing the signs of a change in their mental health, patients will also learn what to do if they suspect their mental health has changed in some way.

The loved ones of a patient might sit in with patients as they learn more about their mental health issues and also receive their own training sessions revolving around how to respond to the patient’s behaviors and struggles. One of the biggest challenges of helping someone living with a serious mental health condition is understanding the seemingly erratic behavior that may go along with it. PMHNPs have a responsibility to provide their patients with the best chance possible of long-term mental health improvement, and educating their families is often an important step toward that goal.

Along with working with loved ones and patients, PMHNPs sometimes work with the patient’s broader community. This might involve working with schools or outreach organizations to provide training sessions designed to raise awareness of various mental health disorders and how to support the people living with them.

Group exercises

While theoretical education plays a big role in effective mental health education, sometimes hands-on work is the most motivating tool PMHNPs have at their disposal. Group exercises, in particular, are an excellent way to not just tell patients what they should be doing to recover but also show them what changes to make and motivate them to make the necessary changes.

There are a wide variety of group exercises that can help patients improve their physical and mental health at the same time. Cooking classes, for example, can prepare them to make healthy meals that nourish their bodies and minds. Hiking is another option. Group hiking sends groups out into the local parks to do some much-needed walking and talking. Patients can use this time to facilitate supportive relationships while actively and directly improving their mental health at the same time.

Other group exercises that focus on physical health and activity include walking, dancing, cycling, running and yoga, to name just a few. There is no one-size-fits-all exercise to propel patients to success but placing them in classes based on their interests and daily life can significantly improve their chances. The goal of group exercises is to help patients improve their physical health to produce an improvement in their mental health.

Final thoughts

Few care providers are as crucial to mental health recovery and wellness as PMHNPs. If you want to help people struggling with some of the most challenging mental health conditions, this might be the perfect career choice for you. Keep the information above in mind as you search for the right program for your goals and needs, and you’ll be helping others in no time.