Skip to main content

95% of us say mental health is important, yet only 26% prioritize it. Here’s why you should.

Maureen Shelly By Maureen Shelly

Aetna_Social Crop Template

If you’re reading this, chances are your health is important to you. It’s important to us too, and we want to understand more about how Americans like you think and act when it comes to health. So we teamed up with the research company Morning Consult to talk with 2,200 adults across the country about their health goals. In 12 questions, our “Picture of health” survey asked people to rate their physical, mental and spiritual health, share their goals, and discuss the barriers they face to achieving them. 

Turns out, we’re an optimistic bunch, with most of us rating our current health as good or excellent, and believing it’ll stay that way. We also have similar health aspirations: losing weight, lowering stress. And we cite similar challenges to achieving our goals, namely lack of time and money. Previous research conducted by Aetna echoes the need for more time. Nearly two thirds of people say that they would dedicate more time to mental and physical health if they had an extra hour in the day.

The most surprising thing we found is that, although we say mental health has a powerful influence on overall health, we’re doing very little to prioritize our emotional well-being. Why don’t our actions line up with our beliefs? We dug into the data and consulted with experts to understand this crucial disconnect. After all, doctors now know that supporting mental health is essential to treating complex physical conditions like heart disease and chronic pain.

Keep reading to learn what you should be doing to care for your mental health. Just as important, discover tips to help you make it a priority.

The surprising disconnect between our health intentions and actions.

Most of us (95%) say that caring for mental health is important to overall health. At least in theory, we recognize that good mental health can’t be taken for granted and requires some TLC. Our actions, however, tell a different story: Only 26% of adults say they prioritize mental health over physical health. Somehow, our good intentions get lost in the hustle of daily life.

View Transcript

Make no mistake: Americans do make time for working toward our health goals. But one particular to-do tends to dominate our attention: weight loss. One in three of us says it’s our most important goal. That’s way ahead of the second place goal, eating a balanced diet, endorsed by 9% of adults. With 74% of Americans considered overweight, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to get to a healthy size. But it poses a problem when a single-minded approach leaves no room for other important health goals. 

View Transcript

Here’s why that disconnect matters when it comes to your health (and your health goals).

More and more people are recognizing that mind and body are essentially the same thing. And growing evidence shows that investing in your mental health can boost your physical health as well. 

Psychiatrist and Aetna medical director Gabriela Cora, MD, believes that strong mental health comes from paying equal attention to the “four pillars” of good health: nutrition, exercise, sleep and relaxation. But when we asked people to select multiple health goals, diet was at the top of the list, with some people choosing more than one diet goal. The other three pillars ― exercise, sleep and relaxation ― were afterthoughts, as was spending more time with friends and family.

Speaking of friends and family, many studies have noted a strong association between good health and supportive social relationships. Indeed, 10% of survey respondents said a lack of support from friends and family got in the way achieving their health goals. And yet, we don’t seem to prioritize our relationships very highly. “Spend more time with friends and family” ranked #6, below goals about diet, sleep and getting outside. “Maintain a healthy relationship” ranked #8. 

View transcript

In another twist, the majority of survey participants (51%) say the community they live in has no impact on their health ― neither positive nor negative. The truth is, your ZIP code is a greater indicator of your health than your genetic code, according to the Centers for Disease Control. 

When it comes to achieving health goals, many of us believe having more time and money would increase our chances of success. In our survey, 25% of Americans said “It’s too expensive,” while 23% believed “I don’t have enough time.” On the surface, those responses are perfectly logical. Paying for a gym membership can certainly make getting fit easier. And working fewer hours can free up more time for grocery shopping and cooking healthy meals. But the fact is, some people with tighter schedules and budgets still find room for their health.

View transcript

Then what really is getting in the way? It may be the fact that we don’t prioritize mental health.

Why Americans don’t prioritize mental health.

It’s clear that we’re not prioritizing our emotional well-being, but the question is why? The evidence points to three likely suspects:

  •  Stigma, especially among older adults. After age 55, time spent on mental health drops dramatically, with just 14% of those 65 and over reporting they spend most of their time on mental health. Obviously, physical health problems are more common as we age, and therefore take up more of our time. But mental health professionals say there’s still a stigma around mental health among the 50+ crowd.

“It remains taboo to focus on mental health,” Dr. Cora says. “We know that people who struggle with chronic back pain also struggle with depression. But if you ask them, they focus on the physical. And people are willing to say, ‘I’m not feeling well,’ but they won’t attribute it to mood.”

Stigma seems to be less of an issue among younger adults. According to a 2015 study, millennials are more accepting of others with mental illness, and more likely to talk about mental health than their parents or grandparents. Our survey shows that 20- and 30-somethings ― the millennial generation ― are twice as likely to put mental health first than adults 55 and up.

 
 
  • Lack of awareness about the interaction of mental and physical health. Studies show that people with heart disease experience more cardiac symptoms, both in number and severity, when they feel under stress. The best cardiac treatment plans address not just physical factors but also emotional ones.

Many Americans don’t understand that proactively caring for mental health can benefit both mind and body. This is especially true for older adults. “Unless you have a well-defined psychiatric issue, seniors may not take mental health seriously.” Dr. Cora says. But depression, which affects 6.5 million Americans age 65 or older, can contribute to a number of physical problems, including dementia.

  • Not knowing how to get started. One in ten people expressed confusion over how to get started as a barrier to achieving their health goals. At some point, we’ve all been overwhelmed by the idea of a big project. Taking the first step to a healthier life is often the hardest part.

So how do you prioritize mental health?

The good news is that prioritizing mental well-being is a lot more straightforward than you might think. Experts stress that relationships are key to strengthening emotional health. For many Americans, that means shifting our focus toward connecting more with others, preferably offline.

The health benefits of connecting with others are far-reaching. Experts agree that social involvement is an important factor in maintaining all kinds of healthy behavior, whether it’s exercising, eating right or quitting smoking. It’s also a powerful stress reducer, which has its own positive impact on health.

And don’t forget to prioritize sleep, nutrition, exercise and relaxation. In addition to keeping your body running, these activities work wonders for your emotional well-being.

Finally, if you’ve been struggling to lose weight, changing your approach may be just what the doctor ordered. For many people, calorie counting isn’t nearly as effective as paying attention to the emotional triggers driving unhealthy eating. Refocusing on mental health goals may actually result in better weight control.

Read how Cory Metzler let go of fear and anger ― and lost 100 pounds.

Connecting the dots: How to set mental health goals.

Experts recommend setting mental health goals around three levels of connection: yourself, your loved ones, and your community. Here are some examples:

  1. Connect with yourself. Relax and do something you enjoy that allows you to get in touch with your feelings. That could mean meditation, yoga, massage, reading in a hot bath, walking in nature, journaling/scrapbooking, or gardening. Aim for 20 minutes a day.
  2. Connect with others (offline). Spend time with positive, loving people you care about and trust. They can be friends, family, a support group or counselor.
  3. Connect with your community. Expand your social circle or just become more aware of your larger community. Take a class, volunteer, attend a public event with a live audience, or practice random acts of kindness with strangers.

How will you know your great experiment in creating mental health goals is working? You may experience lower perceived stress, better relationships, more restful sleep, even fewer physical symptoms like pain and fatigue. Over the long term, you should enjoy a stronger brain and heart, improved immune function and other physical benefits.

Be sure to share your goals with your doctor. Our research confirms that doctors play a critical role in supporting your holistic health goals. Your doctor can also help you monitor your progress toward a healthier you—both in mind and in body.

You can get a quick read on your emotional health by using the MindCheck® online tool.

At first, you may feel a little guilty for making socializing a priority. How can something you enjoy actually be good for you? Just remember that strong relationships are not a luxury; they’re essential to mental and physical health. By reaching out to others, you may find your other health goals become easier to reach.

About the author

Maureen Shelly is a health and science geek living in New York City.