Unhealthy Choices Linked to Poor Mental Health

There is a high level of co-morbidity among those with mental health and substance use disorders. For example, those with depression and anxiety have an increased risk for substance use when compared with healthy individuals with no mental health issues. Understanding this relationship is often a chicken-and-egg debate. While mental health and unhealthy behaviors are linked, it has been difficult to determine, for instance, whether depression may stem from the repeated use of a substance, or if substance use develops as a way to self-medicate against a mental health issue.

A recent study by researchers at the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at The Miriam Hospital provides evidence that, among low-income populations, poor mental health leads to poor health choices. Led by Dr. Jennifer Walsh, the findings show that anxiety and stress are predictors for unhealthy behaviors, such as binge drinking and unprotected sex as well as unhealthy diets and smoking.

The researchers say that one possible reason for the relationship may be that the bad choices are used as coping mechanisms to treat the symptoms of anxiety and stress.

The study, which appears in the online version of the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine, examined the connection between mental health and unhealthy behaviors to understand how the relationship develops among low-income populations.

The 482 patients were recruited at a clinic providing care for sexually transmitted diseases. An online interview was conducted at the beginning of the study period and again at three, six, nine and twelve month intervals. In addition to mental health measures of depression, stress and anxiety, the researchers also examined health-related behaviors, including substance use (smoking, illegal drugs, and binge drinking), dietary, sexual, sleep and exercise habits.

The researchers found that poor health habits were exhibited by those who were treated at the clinic, including unprotected sex, substance use and poor diet. Those patients who had a very low income were more likely to have a high number of poor health habits, in addition to more symptoms of anxiety, depression and high levels of stress, when compared to patients with higher levels of income.

The findings showed a clear connection between symptoms of anxiety, depression and perceived stress and later development of poor health choices. However, poor choices did not predict later mental health. In other words, unprotected sex, substance use and poor diet choices did not lead to increased levels of mental health issues.

The results show that among low-income individuals, unhealthy behaviors do not predict later mental health issues, but instead problems like substance abuse and unprotected sex follow mental health problems.

The authors of the study write that the findings suggest that providing mental health services for low-income individuals may provide a way to prevent further compromising health choices.

Posted on January 13th, 2014

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