Don't Separate Mental Health From Physical Health

Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD


August 01, 2023

"The patient is ready," the medical assistant informs you while handing you the chart. The chart reads: "Chief complaint: Weight gain/Discuss weight loss options." You note the normal vital signs other than an increased BMI to 34 from 4 months ago. You knock on the exam room door with your plan half-formulated.

"Come in," the patient says, almost too softly for you to hear. Shock overtakes you as you enter the room and see something you never imagined. The patient is holding their disconnected head in their lap as they say, "Nice to see you, Doc. I want to do something about my weight."

You're baffled at how they are speaking with a disconnected head. Of course, this outlandish patient scenario isn't real. Or is it?

Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD

Patients with mental health concerns don't literally present with their head disconnected from their bodies. Too often, mental health is treated as separate from physical health, especially regarding weight management and obesity. However, studies have shown an association between mental health and obesity. In this pivotal time of pharmacologic innovation in obesity care, we must also ensure that we effectively address the mental health of our patients with obesity.

In this article, I'll share six ways that clinicians can improve mental health care for patients with obesity.


Mental health conditions can look different for everyone. It can be hard to diagnose a mental health condition without validated screening. For example, depression is one of the most common mental health disorders. The US Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) recommends depression screening in all adults.

The Patient Health Questionnaire-2 (PHQ-2) is one screening tool that can alert doctors and clinicians to potential depression. Patients with obesity have higher rates of depression and other mental health conditions. It's even more critical to screen for depression and other mental health disorders when prescribing these new medications, given recent reports of suicidal ideation with certain antiobesity medications.


Mental health–related stigma can trigger shame and prevent patients from seeking psychological help. Furthermore, compounded stigma in patients with larger bodies (weight bias) and from marginalized communities such as the Black community (racial discrimination) add more barriers to seeking mental health care. When patients seek care for mental health conditions, they may feel more comfortable seeing a primary care physician or other clinician than a mental health professional. Therefore, all physicians and clinicians are integral in normalizing mental health care. Instead of treating mental health as separate from physical health, discussing the bidirectional relationship between mental health conditions and physiologic diseases can help patients understand that having a mental health condition isn't a choice and facilitate openness to multiple treatment options to improve their quality of life.


Addressing mental health effectively often requires multiple layers of patient support. Support can come from loved ones or community groups. But for severe stress and other mental health conditions, treatment with psychotherapy or psychiatric medications is essential. Unfortunately, even if a patient is willing to see a mental health professional, availability or access may be a challenge. Therefore, other clinicians may have to step in and serve as a bridge to mental health care. It's also essential to ensure that patients are aware of crisis support lines and online resources for mental health care.


Having a high level of stress can be harmful physically and can also worsen mental health conditions. Additionally, it can contribute to a higher risk for obesity and can trigger emotional eating. Chronic stress has become so common in society that patients often underestimate how much stress they are under. Assessments like the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory can help patients identify and quantify potential stressors. While some stressors are uncontrollable, such as social determinants of health (SDOH), addressing controllable stressors and improving coping mechanisms is possible. For instance, mindfulness and breathwork are easy to follow and relatively accessible for most patients.

Social Determinants of Health

For a treatment plan to be maximally impactful, we must incorporate SDOH in clinical care. SDOH includes financial instability, safe neighborhoods, and more, and can significantly influence an ideal treatment plan. Furthermore, a high SDOH burden can negatively affect mental health and obesity rates. It's helpful to incorporate patients' SDOH burden into treatment planning. Learn how to take action on SDOH here.


Patients who address their mental health have taken a courageous step toward health and healing. As mentioned, they may experience gaps in care while awaiting connection to the next steps of their journey, such as starting care with a mental health professional or waiting for a medication to take effect. All clinicians can empower patients about their weight by informing them that:

  • Food may affect their mood. Studies show that certain foods and eating patterns are associated with high levels of depression and anxiety. Limiting processed foods and increasing fruits, vegetables, and foods high in vitamin D, C, and other nutrients is helpful. Everyone is different, so encourage patients to pay attention to how food uniquely affects their mood by keeping a food/feeling log for 1-3 days.

  • Move more. Increased physical activity can improve mental health. Here are five tips to help your patients move more.

  • Get outdoors. Time in nature is associated with better mental health. Spending as little as 10 minutes outside can be beneficial. It's important to be aware that SDOH factors such as unsafe environments or limited outdoor access may make this difficult for some patients.

  • Positive stress-relieving activities. Each person has their own way of reducing stress. It is helpful to remind patients of unhealthy stress relievers such as overeating, drinking alcohol, and smoking, and encourage them to replace those with positive stress relievers.

  • Spiritual well-being. Spirituality is often overlooked in healthcare. But studies have shown that incorporating a person's spirituality may have positive health benefits.

It's time to stop disconnecting mental health from physical health. Each clinician plays a vital role in treating the whole person. Just as you wouldn't let a patient with a disconnected head leave the office without addressing it, let's not leave mental health out when addressing our patients' weight concerns.

Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD, DipABOM, is an integrative obesity specialist focused on individualized solutions for emotional and biological overeating. Connect with her at or on Instagram @embraceyoumd. Her bestselling book, Embrace You: Your Guide to Transforming Weight Loss Misconceptions Into Lifelong Wellness, was's Best Overall Weight Loss Book of 2022 and one of's 8 Best Weight-Loss Books to Read in 2022.

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