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The inseparable link between pain and mental health

“I think that people need to understand that we don’t want to be in pain. Our whole lives have been changed, we need understanding, compassion and help, not to be humiliated.” – person living with chronic pain.

The release of the Productivity Commission Inquiry Report into Mental Health has provided an opportunity to highlight the need for a shift to targeted and innovative solutions for those who fall through the cracks of mental health services. This is especially true for the 3.37 million Australians living with chronic pain.

There is a large cross-over between people living with chronic pain and living with mental health problems, particularly depression and anxiety. The Productivity Commission Report highlights the similarities between the impacts of these issues, as well as the recommended solutions.

The Report found that around one in five Australians has experienced a mental health problem, reporting that many do not receive the treatment and support they need. It also found:

  • a person’s mental health reflects the interaction of a lifetime of individual and lifestyle factors with a range of environmental, community and family risk factors
  • almost half of all Australians will experience mental illness at some point in their life – the most common mental illnesses are anxiety disorders and depressive disorders
  • the costs of mental health problems and suicide are substantial across the healthcare, education, housing and justice sectors; by workplaces; and by consumers and their families and carers
  • the Australian mental health system should be person centred, supporting prevention by reducing the risk of an individual developing mental health problems and enabling early intervention
  • Improvements to people’s mental health increased their likelihood of employment and their expected income, while also improving their health-related quality of life.

Not surprisingly, the report found that mental health problems affect an individual’s education opportunities and employment, relationships and quality of life. These impacts are similar to those faced by people living with pain, and it’s important to note that the suggested solutions within the report are also comparable to those advocated for managing pain conditions including a biopsychosocial approach and the importance of early intervention.

“Chronic pain wears you down especially when the medical professionals are not very supportive, lack the knowledge and/or understanding of chronic pain and six sessions in the mental health care plan is not enough” – person living with chronic pain.

Mental health is a national issue deserving of attention and resources and we have seen unprecedented spending in this area over the past few years. However, we cannot ignore the key comorbidities that impact on mental health outcomes, such as chronic pain. It would be impractical to address mental health on a large, national scale without consideration of pain and the role it plays.

Painaustralia’s full submission to the Productivity Commission outlines recommendations to ensure health policies and programs take into account the nexus between mental health and pain conditions.

As we face rising numbers of people living with mental health problems and people living with pain, we must find new solutions to make the investments worthwhile. It’s time to look at how we target this population that seems largely invisible within existing mental health services.

 “There is not much support out there for those slipping through the gap like me. Over 60 but too young for aged programs and the focus on mental health is focused on the young. This is good but there are some older folk slipping through the gaps as services are not networking to catch these people” – person living with chronic pain.

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