The IBHCRP: Breaking Down the Walls that Separate Physical and Mental Health

The following is a guest blog post written by researchers in the Integrated Brain Health Clinical and Research Program at Massachusetts General Hospital and Emma Meyers, BA, a medical student at Harvard University.

What if there was a simple way to help individuals prioritize their emotional health just as much as their physical health?

As a clinical psychology intern at Massachusetts General Hospital over a decade ago, Ana-Maria Vranceanu, PhD, found herself asking this question about the orthopedic surgery patients she was caring for. Sometimes it was their stress and mental health challenges that brought them into the surgical practice, even when tests were normal. Vranceanu noticed that patients were overly focused on identifying what was physically wrong with them and struggled to acknowledge the role mental health played in their illness.

Since then, Vranceanu has worked with patients with a range of diagnoses in order to find a way to bridge the mind-body divide. She has partnered with patients to unpack their perspectives on illness, and learned that even when mental health conditions like depression and anxiety are acknowledged, there is a clear priority placed on what is felt to be purely “physical.”

She found that many patients believed their mental health challenges could be put on the back burner and would go away once their physical illnesses were cured. Patients admitted they were uneasy about sharing their struggles with coping or overwhelming emotions because of stigma surrounding mental illness. They also feared that their physical symptoms would be dismissed if mental health concerns were uncovered.

Dr. Vranceanu started thinking about health more holistically to combat this stigma. She landed on the idea of brain health—a person’s emotional, cognitive and physical functioning—to break down the walls that often separate physical and mental health.

With support from Jonathan Rosand, MD, the McCance Center for Brain Health at Mass General, and the Psychiatry Department leadership, Dr. Vranceanu founded the Integrated Brain Health Clinical and Research Program (IBHCRP) two years ago.

The Integrated Brain Health Clinical and Research Program

The IBHCRP is designed to help individuals with brain illness conceptualize any mental health or coping challenges they experience — such as changes in emotions, cognition and behaviors — as similar to changes in blood pressure or blood sugar that develop in the context of illnesses of the body. These alterations in emotions, thoughts and behaviors are biologically driven, but are influenced by many of the same factors that affect physical illnesses, such as lifestyle behaviors, stress, trauma, and relationships.

In the IBHCRP model, brain health is not separate from—or any less important than—physical health.

Our work at the IBHCRP is focused on developing brain health interventions that bridge the mind and body. We aim to break down the silos that exist between disciplines and translate evidence-based concepts into simple toolkits that individuals can use to navigate medical or general life challenges.

Ana-Maria Vranceanu, PhD

IBHCRP interventions help patients change their brains through neuroplasticity—the process by which the brain forms new neuronal connections due to new experiences and ways of thinking—by incorporating lifestyle behaviors, stress management skills, preventative medical care and positive social networks into their approach. These lifestyle changes have the potential to affect our gene expression and impact the brain health of future generations.

IBHCRP clinicians use evidence-based cognitive-behavioral, mind-body, lifestyle, and positive psychology principles to provide brain health toolkits because prioritizing brain health can allow people to enjoy more productive, longer lives. It also helps promote resilience to help them bounce back more easily when faced with life challenges, including illness. The toolkits have proven useful to a variety of individuals, such as patients struggling with acute or chronic illness, older adults with dementia and even caregivers.

The next generation of brain health psychologists is emerging from the IBHCRP as well. More trainees are learning to approach health through an interdisciplinary lens because of experiences like the American Psychological Association-approved internship in Brain Health, postdoctoral fellowships, Henry and Allison McCance Center Fellowships for promising medical students, visiting international research positions and many others.

IBHCRP’s culture is focused on teamwork and encourages openness to challenges, identifying strengths, cultivating resiliency and a horizontal approach to leadership such that everyone pitches in to help as needed.

Regardless of task. Dr. Vranceanu and her team know that success, like health, it something best worked toward together.

About the Mass General Research Institute
Massachusetts General Hospital is home to the largest hospital-based research program in the United States. Our researchers work side-by-side with physicians to develop innovative new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent disease.
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