Americans Understand Importance of Mental Health, But Still Neglect It

Health attitudes vs. behavior from the Verywell Mind Mental Health Tracker

illustration of people favoring physical health over mental health

Joshua Seong / Verywell

For the July edition of the Verywell Mind Mental Health Tracker, Amy Morin, LCSW, Editor-in-Chief analyzes the gap between what Americans do for their physical health and what they do (or don't do) for their mental health.

To find out what previous surveys said about the state of mental health in the U.S., check out our previous releases.

It won't surprise you to learn that most Americans find value in taking care of their physical health. In Verywell Mind's latest survey, 77% of adults say physical health is important. We understand this as a critical component of our overall well-being—from our first P.E. class as kids to late-in-life checkups with the doctor, we're constantly confronted with the need to exercise more, eat healthier foods, and take care of our bodies.

What may surprise you is that nearly as many Americans—76%—acknowledge the importance of taking care of their mental health. With results like that, we must be walking, talking strongholds of mental fortitude, right? Well...not exactly.

While we may understand and verbalize the need to care for our minds as well as our bodies, our actions reflect a very different reality. Our survey found that 61% of Americans spend more time working on their physical health, compared to 39% who focus more on their mental health.

In the midst of the ongoing, pandemic-aided global mental health crisis, it's crucial to try to understand this discrepancy and what we can do to balance our priorities and bring our actions in line with our beliefs. We pay lip service to the reality that mental health is health, but often aren't taking the steps needed to live that truth.

Matter Over Mind

Improving your physical health isn't easy. Nobody who has started a new workout regimen from scratch or tried to overhaul a lifetime's worth of poor dietary habits would tell you it is. It takes time, effort, know-how, space, and—quite often—money.

Meanwhile, a lot of the exercises you might do in order to improve your mental health can be completed in relatively little time at no cost using only the tools you were born with. You could try some mental exercises right now in fact, right where you sit reading this article.

The question, then, is obvious: why do we tend to favor one over the other? Everyone has their own reasons for approaching their health in a particular way, but there may be some common themes to help us understand how we prioritize our health goals.

You May Not Know How to Work on Your Mental Health

Most people can name steps they'd take to improve their physical health. Eat less red meat or overprocessed foods. Go for a walk every day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Increase your vitamin intake.

These changes aren't easy, but they feel simple, tangible, and attainable. These habits are instantly familiar to us, whether or not we practice them.

On the mental health side, you've probably heard of strategies like meditation and deep breathing, but do you really know how to do them? Have you been trained in these practices since childhood? Does the idea of meditating make you think, “How am I supposed to relax if my issue is that I can't relax?”

If your answers to those questions were no, no, and an enthusiastic yes, you're not alone.

Many mental health strategies have very low entry barriers for the average person, but they simply may not know the best way to get started, or even how to talk about their mental health in the first place.

Those P.E. classes that taught you about exercise and got your body moving from a young age? Most people likely didn't attend schools that featured equivalent educational experiences around mental health.

Tangible Goals, Tangible Results

Why do people get in the habit of lifting weights or running several days a week in the first place? To get stronger, to get faster and feel less winded, and to see the results when they look in the mirror. When you follow through and build those habits, you receive direct and easy-to-understand positive feedback to further reinforce the behavior.

It's tougher to see those direct results when you’re working on reducing your negative thinking or managing your anxiety. There's no scale to step on that says, "Congrats! You feel better now." Wanting to be less stressed or more excited to take on the day are far less tangible goals that are comprised of similarly intangible steps along the way.

Because we don't always know how to talk about our mental health in the first place, we might struggle to set attainable goals, which can be one of the quicker paths to giving up—or never starting. It's important to reshape the way we all think about our mental health.

Don't focus on removing stress from your life as a goal; instead, focus on the one or two things you can do today to breathe a little easier. Whether it's calling an old friend, sending a thank you card, or setting aside time to be outside and away from screens, you have more tangible mental health tools at your disposal than you realize.

The Stigma of Mental Health Issues May Stand in the Way

While someone might readily tell others they’re lifting weights or going for a jog, they may be less likely to want others to know they’re writing in a journal or seeing a therapist. And let's face it, a lot of physical activities are fun and often social experiences that you're happy to share with others.

Consequently, you may invest less time in activities that might not be favored by your family, friends, or wider social circle.

Time and again, the results of our Mental Health Tracker surveys show that even people who are seeking treatment for mental health issues—and are pleased with the results—feel the stigma attached to something like therapy.

We're getting better at acknowledging and having these conversations, but it's clear there are hurdles still to overcome.

You May Be Working on Your Mental Health Without Realizing It

While someone’s main reason for exercising might be to take care of their physical health, their activities may be just as beneficial to their mental health.

Countless studies have analyzed the mental health benefits of exercise that extend far beyond a one-off feeling of runner's high. So even if you think you're highly favoring your bodily health, there's a very strong chance you are taking good care of your mind at the same time.

We're More Reactive Than Proactive About Our Health

Too often, it seems that healthy actions—physical or mental—are in direct response to an ailment or some kind of moment of crisis. It's good to take steps in those moments to improve your health, but it's even better to take preventative steps that will help guard against issues in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, our latest survey showed that the value placed on bodily health increases with age:

  • Millennials and Gen Z are split, investing nearly equal time in caring for their mental and physical health.
  • 54% of Gen Xers favor their physical health.
  • Over 80% of adults aged 57 and up (Boomers and the Silent Generation) invest more time in caring for their physical health.

While it inspires hope that younger people may take a more even approach to their health, only half of Gen Z rated their mental and physical health as important. For younger people, health concerns of any kind may feel like a problem for another day, month, or year.

As data from the older generations show, once that day, month, or year does come, the focus appears to be on the medications, aches, pains, and physical ailments that tend to come with age.

Insofar as talking about our mental health is a relatively new phenomenon, older adults who grew up in an era when they were more likely to keep such things to themselves seem less likely to start focusing on their mental health now.

Why Some People May Not Fit the Mold

There’s a good chance that most people wait until they are experiencing emotional distress before investing time into their mental health. It’s also likely that many people don’t know how to become proactive in caring for their mental health without the support of a mental health professional.

Those who focus more on their mental health (39%), then, may do so in response to a crisis or mental illness. Individuals who prioritize their mental health are:

  • More likely to be seeing a therapist (30% vs. 13% of those who prioritize physical health).
  • More likely to have a diagnosed mental illness (39% vs 19% of those who prioritize physical health).
  • More likely to be stressed (61% vs 43% of those who prioritize physical health).

How to Invest Time Into Caring for Your Mental Health

There are many things you can do to address both your mental health and physical health at the same time; get plenty of sleep, eat a well-balanced diet, and exercise regularly.

But there are also plenty of things you can do to focus on improving your mental health. Here are just a few activities that may improve mental health:

Most of these options come at very little or no cost, don't take much time, and can be done anywhere. It may feel less "active" to work on your mental health, but rest assured that even a few minutes a day of certain practices or exercises can have significant benefits—and leave you with time to squeeze some traditional exercise into your day, too.

While there may be times where one area needs more attention than the other, caring for both your mind and your body is an essential component of living your best life. 

Take a moment to consider how much time you’re devoting to your mental health versus your physical health. You might discover it makes sense to shift your priorities a bit so you can feel your best, both physically and emotionally. Or you might realize you have been caring for your mental health all along in ways you never expected.

Methodology

The Verywell Mind Mental Health Tracker is a monthly measurement of Americans’ attitudes and behaviors around their mental health. The survey is fielded online, beginning April 28, 2021, to 4,000 adults living in the U.S. The total sample matches U.S. Census estimates for age, gender, race/ethnicity, and region.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Biddle S. Physical activity and mental health: evidence is growingWorld Psychiatry. 2016;15(2):176-177. doi:10.1002/wps.20331