February 08, 2023
Heart disease has been the leading cause of death for Americans since 1950. Although heart disease deaths had been on a slow, yet steady decline for years, they spiked again during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among young adults and Black adults. In 2020, the heart disease death rate increased by 4 percent, after dropping almost 10 percent in 2019, according to a study from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.
Due to the considerable efforts that have been made to prevent heart disease, most people understand how big of a role our diet, activity level, and behaviors like smoking play in reducing our risks for heart disease. But there is another key risk factor for heart disease that many of us don’t realize or discuss — our mental health.
The mind-body-heart connection
There is a strong connection between our minds, our bodies, and our hearts. A person’s mental state affects their physical health, and conversely, their physical health can affect their mental health. Although researchers don’t yet know how exactly this connection works, we do know that mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, chronic stress, and post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, are linked to an increased risk for heart disease.
One in five Americans, about 52 million people, live with some form of mental illness, such as anxiety, depression and PTSD, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Yet less than half of these individuals received mental health services in 2020. Black people who need mental health care are less likely to receive it. Only one out of three Black people who need mental health care get it, according to data from the American Heart Association. Black Americans are also 30 percent more likely to die from heart disease than people from other racial groups.
Living with untreated depression, anxiety, stress, or PTSD can affect a person’s heart rate and blood pressure. In addition, they may experience lowered blood flow going to the heart and increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. These issues can result in buildup in the arteries and, over time, lead to heart disease and other health problems.
In addition, people living with untreated mental illness are more likely to be inactive and resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms, like smoking and drinking alcohol. Untreated mental illness also makes it more likely people will struggle to take their medications as prescribed.
The effects of heart disease on mental health
The connection between heart disease and mental health is a two-way street. People who develop heart disease or have a heart attack experience an increased risk of depression afterward, even if they never had any prior issues with their mental health. People with heart disease are three times more likely to struggle with depression as those who don’t have heart disease.
Heart attacks can affect people’s confidence and attitude. A person who has suffered a heart attack might feel embarrassed by their lifestyle choices and the role they played in affecting their heart health and their confidence could be shaken. Unfortunately, when someone has had a heart attack and struggles with depression, they are more likely to have a hard time taking care of themselves afterward. And they may be more likely to turn to unhealthy behaviors, like smoking and self-medicating with drugs or alcohol.
The importance of whole-person care for heart health
Taking care of mental health can also protect heart health. Getting care early not only lowers a person’s chances for developing heart disease, but also fosters healthy behaviors to reduce the risk of another heart attack.
There are many barriers to getting mental health care, such as the stigma that still surrounds mental health, the availability of providers in communities, the lack of diversity among mental health providers, and not having insurance or being underinsured. Not to mention, the nature of depression and other mental health conditions simply can make it difficult to seek and receive care.
At Florida Blue, we’re committed to the health and well-being of our employees, members and the communities we serve. We believe there is no health without mental health, which is why we are committed to a whole-person approach to care, integrating behavioral and physical health.
In 2021, we increased in-network mental health providers by 74% (over 2020) in order to provide expanded access to services. We increased access to sub-specialists, including in-home intense family services, Medication Assisted Treatment (in-home and virtual), alternate therapies for autism and OCD treatment. Through our relationship with Lucet (previously known as New Directions Behavioral Health), a leading managed behavioral health care organization, we are advancing our mission to increase access to integrated, holistic health care to help people and communities achieve better health. We also provide our members with digital resources, like meQuilibrium, to help them improve their mental well-being and reduce stress.
In our communities, Florida Blue invests in behavioral health infrastructure through mental well-being grants that support the unique needs of those communities. In addition, our Florida Blue Centers provide a wide range of support and resources to the public, including access to Community Specialists, Care Nurses, and free educational classes each month on a wide range of mental health topics.
It is important that we find the best channels and approaches to make mental health care accessible to all the communities that we serve. Helping people get the mental health care early and helping them develop healthier coping mechanisms, like getting exercise, eating healthfully and quitting smoking, can make a big difference in reducing people’s risk of developing heart disease or dying from it if they already have it.
To put it simply, there is a connection between mind and body. Lowering the risk for heart disease requires a coordinated approach that manages both the heart and the mind.
Florida Blue contracts with Lucet to provide behavioral health services.