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Physiotherapists crucial in supporting mental and physical health.

Physiotherapists treat many patients whose physical and mental health conditions overlap. As such, a multidisciplinary approach, combined with professional development in mental health, helps bridge the physical and psychological health of those with a mental illness.

Considering 1 in 5 Australians aged 16-85 has a mental health condition, it's highly probable that a significant proportion of clients receiving physical therapy will have a mental illness or be at risk of developing one.

The Australian Physiotherapy Association's Mental Health Group is a testament that physiotherapists are increasingly playing a significant role in the mental health field.

According to the Australian Physiotherapy Association: "Members of the Mental Health group play an integral role in creating a culture of physiotherapy in mental healthcare—improving the awareness and recognition of the importance of physiotherapy and its contribution to a multidisciplinary team approach."
Further, physiotherapists are often a source of treatment for those wanting to improve their emotional and mental health. Unfortunately, their experience in mental health is a relatively new development, so sources of professional support are vital.

Why join the Mental Health physiotherapy group?

The Australian Physiotherapy Association's Mental Health group is an easy way to connect with other physiotherapists across Australia who are working in the mental health field and those interested in this area.

• Receive emails written by experienced physiotherapists with a background in mental health
• Stay informed with the updates and news
• The latest research on mental health developments
• Professional development opportunities in mental health
• Free attendance at lectures
• Access to a Facebook group
• Updates on committee activities throughout Australia.

Michael Edmonds, Head Physiotherapist Orthopaedics at the Prince of Wales Hospital, says physiotherapists play a preventative role in mental health.

"We cannot ignore exercise, movement and relaxation as a core preventative mechanism to assist in mental health challenges.

"Modern-day pressures and expectations wear people down, so these measures are paramount, in my opinion, to maintaining clarity.

"My role as a physiotherapist is to work, heal and move the muscular and skeletal system in the rhythm of each post-surgery to promote circulation, oxygen and healing.

"You should eat well, move, stretch and dedicate exercise to your life, just as routinely as brushing your teeth," explained Mr Edmonds. 

Sports physiotherapist Kusal Goonewardena says mindset and mental health are linked with physical ailments that impact his patients, both athletes and non-athletes.

"As a sports physiotherapist, I have to be aware of mental health.

"We are not experts in the field, we are not psychologists, but we need to be aware that physical issues can be caused by mental health dysfunction and physical healing can be slowed down if mental health is not addressed.

"There are times we need to help patients be aware that mental health can cause physical injury symptoms.

"The more understanding I have of the connection between physical and mental involvement in injury, the more I became a complete physiotherapist," said Mr Goonewardena.

Selina Tannenberg, a physiotherapist and Director at Move Medics, says exercise and movement are essential in promoting good mental health, but mental illness is often comorbid with pain.

"It's well established that regular physical movement helps with stress relief, stabilises mood, and promotes a sense of wellbeing.

"It's also understood that those with mental health issues are more likely to experience pain.

"Physiotherapists, being the experts in movement, exercise prescription, and rehabilitation, are perfectly positioned to help our community to use movement to support their mental health.

"We guide the type of activities and prescribe the appropriate dosage of movement for people of all ages and abilities. This is especially important for those experiencing pain and for patients recovering from injuries, surgeries, and illness who are often uncertain about how to begin and what is appropriate for their unique situation."

Physiotherapists also play a crucial role in health education, which can be an opportunity to promote good mental health.

"We educate patients on the importance of physical activity to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. So, it's an easy and natural progression to routinely include the positive benefits for mental health in this dialogue," said Ms Tannenberg.

Having personally experienced depression, Ms Tannenberg says sharing her story with patients is powerful in breaking the stigma associated with mental health issues.

"It encourages them to seek professional help and to understand that they are not alone."

Although undergraduate programs in physiotherapy include subjects relating to mental health, they don't have the necessary practical applications, according to Ms Tannenberg.

"Learning the basics in psychology and psychiatry is a part of undergraduate physiotherapy studies, which allows us to be aware and refer on where appropriate.

"However, there has been little focus on how to support someone living with a mental health condition.

"If health professionals are better informed on how to support those with mental health conditions, then a better outcome, both clinically and in quality of life, can be achieved."

These days, the stigma of mental illness is gradually receding due to ongoing educational programs and promotional efforts by organisations such as the Black Dog Institute. Industry associations are also critical in the education of members in the area of mental health.

"There is now a mental health category in the Australian Physiotherapy Association's professional development platform, delivering learning opportunities to its members, which is encouraging!

"Having experienced depression, I'm familiar with what is available and how to access services. So, I'm able to share this with my patients and provide them with a more solid starting point," said Ms Tannenberg.

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.