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Mind the Gap: Connecting Mental and Physical Health for a Healthier You!

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New technologies and discoveries in the medical field dominate the headlines of news media. Doctors and hospital systems proudly boast the latest in cutting-edge treatments. Social media is full of medical and health trends. One medical system here in the Central Valley is paving the way to healthier patients by providing integrated medical and mental health care. Ashley Hill, PsyD, psychologist and manager of the Embedded Psychologist Program at Kaiser Permanente Central Valley, leads a team of behavioral health consultants, or BHCs, who partner with medical providers to support patients in making healthy lifestyle changes and improving total health. This program aims to improve population health by providing support to as many patients as possible. BHCs are embedded in adult family medicine, pediatrics, women’s health, oncology and pain departments.

Total Health Support
Working with patients to improve whole-body health by increasing overall awareness of health behaviors is the goal of Kaiser Permanente and the Embedded Psychology Program. “BHCs work as a part of the medical care team and are seen as a routine part of medical care, which decreases the stigma and improves access to support,” explained Dr. Hill. “Patients are referred to the BHC by their medical provider through ‘warm handoffs’ and the BHC provides consultation to help the patient better manage their physical and mental health. Not only do the BHCs support individual patients, but they also encourage medical providers to have a more holistic approach to care. Additionally, the BHCs are able to coordinate care with the Specialty Mental Health Department for more complex mental health needs. 

Often there are barriers to health that go unaddressed. BHCs help patients better understand their behaviors and overcome barriers to better health. Many people go through the motions in life, just checking off items on their to-do lists, without making intentional decisions about what they are doing and whether it is healthy or brings them joy and meaning. Women often face many demands and it is hard to stay grounded in this fast-paced life. “We often feel like we are not living up to the standards to which we believe we should. We critically judge ourselves and these beliefs about ourselves interfere with our ability to be present and engaged in life in a meaningful way. Often, we engage in behaviors to avoid negative thoughts or painful emotions that can be harmful to our health,” Dr. Hill explained. “While positive and negative emotions are part of the normal human experience, many people engage in behaviors to avoid negative feelings or believe that there is something wrong with them if they have negative thoughts or feelings. We often think that we should always be happy and that if we are not, then there must be something wrong with us. However, with suffering come growth and resiliency, so it is important to embrace all human emotions.” 

Increasing Focus
Mindfulness is a strategy that can be used to increase awareness of our well-being and health habits so we can take steps toward better health. Mindfulness encourages us to focus on the present moment and to separate ourselves from our thoughts and feelings. “Over time, we can learn to notice our thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way,” Dr. Hill described. “If we try to observe our thoughts as if they were cars passing on the freeway or leaves floating down a stream, we can separate ourselves from them and become curious about how they might be impacting our lives and our functioning. As we learn more about what we think, feel and do, we can determine if we are living our lives how we want to.” People often take the beginning of a new year as a time to reflect on their lives and make positive changes. It is a perfect time for people to slow down and look at how they are living their lives and determine if it’s serving them well.

The Embedded Psychology Program at Kaiser Permanente is a bridge between mental and physical health. With a focus on treating whole health, Dr. Hill and her team are giving patients the tools they need to live healthy lives. “I became a psychologist because I find joy in helping others. My goal is to help people develop skills to overcome challenges and cope with stressors so they can enjoy their lives!” reflected Dr. Hill. By taking time to really think about what means most to you, you can focus your attention and energy on the things that bring you joy and meaning.  You can set small goals to live healthier lives with the ultimate goal of total health in mind, body and soul.

For more information about Behavioral Health Services through Kaiser Permanente, please visit kp.org or contact your primary care doctor.

Dr. Hill’s Tips on Increasing Healthy Behaviors
1. Every morning, take a few minutes to set your intention for the day.

2. Sit in a quiet, uninterrupted space.
3. Take a few deep breaths in through the nose and out of the mouth.
4. Identify one small step you will take toward better health.
5. Each day, repeat and modify your goals to continue to take steps toward better health.