Powerful Emotions Affect Heart Health

08/28/2007 06:11 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

According to the National Mental Health Association, at any given time in the U.S. there are 54 million Americans suffering with a mental health concern. But only eight million people seek treatment.

As a psychotherapist, these statistics alarm me. But they also alarm me as a bypass survivor and a women's heart advocate. Research shows our heart health is connected to our emotions, especially if we are chronically depressed, anxious, angry, or stressed.

Take clinical depression, for example. Studies show that people who are depressed are significantly more likely to develop heart disease and conversely people with heart disease who have an untreated clinical depression are significantly more likely to have a negative health outcome.

There are eight million women living with heart disease and studies show that over half of them experience clinical depression, anxiety disorders, or a combination of both. But of those women, approximately half seek treatment.

In many ways, not getting mental health treatment is a preventable tragedy. Think about the toll this takes on families and overall society, such as in costs of lost days of work, multi-factoral health problems, and drug and alcohol abuse and child/spousal abuse.

The reality is this: the vast majority of patients who get psychotherapy and/or receive medication treatment for a mental health concern get well. In general, people treated for their mental health concerns are more apt to take care of themselves by following their health care providers' mandates, such as exercising, smoking cessation, eating balanced meals, etc. If the four million women heart patients sought treatment for their physical and mental health, it would not only influence the quality of their lives but the lives of their families, friends, and overall society.

So what gets in our way? In general, there are still societal pressures that keep us from getting the mental health treatment that we need and deserve. Issues of stigma, privacy, embarrassment, shame, and denial get in our way. As one insightful patient told me, "I spend a lot of my time on the island of denial." And she is constantly battling with herself about taking proactive steps to change her lifestyle habits and to work through her fears and sadness about having heart disease.

Mental health concerns are health concerns. I have no doubt that all of us would be diligent in getting a health care provider to take care of an open wound on our body. To me, our emotional wounds deserve the same swift and thorough treatment. Aren't we worth it?