Mental wellbeing is essential to overall health. It provides the foundation for a productive life filled with meaning, vitality and connection. Yet 1 billion people globally are affected by a mental health or substance use disorder.

Whether we struggle ourselves or know somebody with a mental health or substance use disorder, this impacts us all; these are our friends, family, co-workers and neighbors. Despite our culture’s desire to separate the two, indeed, the mind and the body are intimately connected.

As a Family Practice Primary Care Provider (PCP), there are many pieces of advice I can bring to my patients who struggle with a mental health disorder or addiction. While these pieces are important and often part of the treatment plan, it’s not where I begin.

At Partnership Health Center, we believe that the foundation of the healing process is for patients to know and feel that they are in a safe place where they can come as they are, be heard, be the expert of their own bodies, and share their experiences without judgment. Creating that safe, trusting place is my priority.

Once the essential elements of trust and safety are in place, I often offer medical advice about factors patients might not know can affect their mental health. Though we know relatively little about mental health and addiction, we do know about things like the power of an anti-inflammatory lifestyle – eating a healthy diet of mostly plant based foods. We know that there is a deep connection between our gut and our mood, and that exercise enhances neurotransmitters (chemical messengers) and reduces systemic inflammation.

We also know that things like sleep, optimism and meaningful relationships all contribute to good mental health. Mental health disorders and addiction have strong inflammatory components and have been clearly linked with the dysregulation of the immune system, in other words, these disorders increase susceptibility to illness.

We have growing research on the bi-directional connection between the gut and the brain. For example, we know that the second highest amount of serotonin receptors – a chemical that influences happiness and mood – is in our gut. The microbiome, or collection of microorganisms in our gut and throughout the body, plays an important role in regulating our emotions, immune system and cognitive function. Food truly can be a powerful medicine for our body, brain, and emotions.

We also know that trauma affects our ability to connect with our body and mind. Living in a constant state of anxiety in which our “sympathetic nervous system” (fight or flight response system) never rests.

I could talk to patients for hours about this important information. I can also offer medication, order tests, connect patients to counseling and refer for addiction services. All of these actions are important, but again, they are not what matters most.

As a PCP, it is not the “advice” I may be able to offer or the pills I may be able to prescribe. What matters most to me is that my patients feel heard, feel safe, feel seen, and feel that as their PCP, I am here to listen and bear witness in both their moments of pain and suffering, as well as their joy.

I want my patients to feel that they are truly heard and seen. I want them to know that I honor and carry their stories in my heart. I want them to feel that they do not have to walk alone in life, and they can come as they are, in whatever place they are, and feel a sense of connection and validation.

Jean Baumgardner is a Family Nurse Practitioner at Partnership Health Center (PHC). Jean delivers primary medical care services at both PHC’s Creamery Building and at a PHC satellite clinic embedded in the Western Montana Mental Health Center.