May is Mental Health Awareness Month, a holiday we’ve observed in this country since 1949. Over the past 70 years, we’ve made huge strides in understanding mental health, effective routes for treatment and the impact it has on our physical health. Today, experts recognize that mental health is a significant contributing factor for a number of physical ailments, including obesity.
More than 100 million Americans suffer from obesity, with Alaska’s adult obesity rate the 20th highest in the nation. Projections show that by 2050, over 42 percent of Americans will be obese. For many years, the prevailing treatment for obesity relied on diet and exercise alone. But such an approach is shortsighted; treatment of this widespread epidemic must be comprehensive, considering the patient as a whole with a focus not only on body, but on mind as well.
As an in-house licensed clinical psychologist at Anchorage Bariatrics, I have the privilege of working with patients every day to help them attain their health and wellness goals. I gather a thorough and comprehensive history of the individual, which includes not only their physical health, but their mental health, traumas, addictions, hobbies, employment, weight concerns, weight-loss attempts, customary diet, physical activity, family, and weight loss goals, expectations and fears. It is my goal, and the goal of our entire medical team, to gain a deeper understanding of the patient and the many factors to consider when discussing treatment options.
It is not my job to help a patient lose weight in the short-term, but to help them sustain a healthy weight for the rest of their lives. And that takes more than a strict diet, exercise regimen, medication or surgery. It means considering their personal histories and habits and addressing any unresolved emotional traumas in a safe space. It means working with the patient to build up their support networks and explore their readiness for change. It means helping them become healthy in both mind and body so that they can thrive in the long-term.
Some individuals choose to seek bariatric treatment after years of contemplation. Others are simply referred by their primary care physician. Whatever the reason may be, the patient’s decision to lose weight is a major step in their life. It is the first step on a path that, like many of life’s adventures, contains hills and dales, ups and downs, forks in the road and detours. But with the knowledge we have now, we know that treating obesity with a consideration for both physical and mental health gives individuals the opportunity to make real, long-term changes in their lives.
• Janet H. Elliott, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist at Anchorage Bariatrics.