Making Sense of the Presidential Physical

01/09/2018 07:20 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2018

On January 12th, President Trump will undergo the customary presidential physical exam at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. This annual evaluation comes amidst recent public concern over President Trump’s mental health, particularly in response to his tweeting, most notably the tweet about the North Korean leader and his “nuclear button.” Many experts have warned of the dangers they see with the status of our leader’s mental health.

There are complicated arguments on all sides of this debate, but setting President Trump’s health aside, the bigger question we need to ask ourselves is why a physical exam without a brain health component is considered commonplace and acceptable in the first place? Why wouldn’t we take the neurological functioning of all individuals, particularly the leader in the highest office of our country, seriously?

In part, because as a society, we tend to think of our health as stopping at the neck. A lack of awareness and understanding around issues of brain health, as well as the pervasive prejudice and stereotyping that surround mental health disorders, have led us to collectively divorce ourselves from this most essential organ in our bodies. Our refusal to look at the brain in the same way that we do the heart or lungs reflects a crippling societal fear of mental health diagnoses. Failing to face this fear is dangerous; the brain is an organ just like any other and we can’t afford to think of it otherwise.

Turning the tide on these misguided ideas will require change at every level of our society and culture. We need to make concerted efforts in two key areas–research and education–to begin to demystify the myths about the brain.

Research

If we are concerned about someone’s blood sugar or heart function, we have tests that can immediately evaluate the symptoms. Why can’t we do this with concerns about brain health? For one, brain research is critically underfunded, and it’s time to acknowledge the fact that adequate governmental funding for mental health research and treatment is a mandatory step in education and awareness. To correct this imbalance and begin to funnel the necessary resources into brain research and care, we need to get political. Mental Health Parity law has been passed, but is not fully implemented. Health insurance needs to cover behavioral health treatment at the same rate as other illnesses. It is imperative that people educate themselves about this health issue that affects one in four people and get involved in advocacy and fundraising. Once we understand these disorders of the brain, we will be able to diagnose and treat them more effectively.

Education

Brain health is similarly neglected in terms of prevention and awareness. We have driver’s education, sex education, drug and alcohol programs for students but where is the brain health curriculum? We need to educate everyone, especially our children. People need to be encouraged to take care of their brain health as they would cardiovascular health or any other aspect of well being. To make a serious dent in this public health crisis, we must start educating at an early age to evolve the culture on this important issue.

Next week is our national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday and we will be attending The Kennedy Forum’s Annual Meeting led by Patrick Kennedy. This year’s forum, the theme of which is “Bending Towards Justice: A Summit for Mental Health Equity,” will bring together experts and advocates such as Michael Phelps, Common, Chirlane McCray, and David Axelrod, whose extensive knowledge and activism has helped educate the public and transform our current system.

It is time we emerge from the dark ages when it comes to how we think about and treat the brain. The brain is just the brain; in other words, it’s simply another organ in our bodies, and a crucial one at that. Let’s come together to dismantle our culture’s misguided and socially constructed barriers between the brain and other parts of the body.

As we take the lead from the ever inspiring and compassionate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., let’s treat everyone with respect and not discriminate or judge each other. Let’s “bend towards justice” by being inclusive so that every single one of us is comfortable being evaluated or receiving treatment for mental health challenges. President Trump, or anyone for that matter, should be able to openly share about their brain health without pause in the same way that the President freely discusses his cholesterol levels.

Because really, when you think about it, what’s a physical exam without a “check-up from the neck up?”

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