The relationship between mental well-being and cardiovascular health

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This article is adapted from the second edition of the Foundation’s magazine

While most health care professionals at the Montreal Heart Institute take care of a patient’s heart, Dr. Judith Brouillette, Director of the Psychiatry Department, provides care for their mental well-being.

Dr. Judith Brouillette is someone who is extremely curious. After graduating with a Ph.D. in electrophysiology, which would have made her a perfect candidate for a position at the Montreal Heart Institute, she finally joined the team in another capacity years later. That’s because an internship in psychiatry convinced her to focus on the brain instead of the heart. “I was riveted by psychiatry. I was fascinated to discover how the brain’s chemistry can profoundly affect human behaviour,” she said of her decision to return to school at the age of 27. Today she is a psychiatrist, researcher, and the director of the Institute’s psychiatry department. Her unique and highly specialized skill set is a major asset for an institute specialized in cardiovascular health.

A two-way street

Even though medicine traditionally segments the human body into different systems, it is now widely accepted that the brain and heart have an impact on each other. “Psychologists were the first ones to make the connection between the two by demonstrating that people with hostile personality traits, such as anger and cynicism, are more prone to heart attacks. In light of these findings, researchers expanded their studies to focus on depression, anxiety, and other issues,” said Dr. Brouillette. Conversely, physical problems often raise stress levels which can exacerbate mental problems. “Symptoms of anxiety, such as palpitations and chest pain, often emulate heart disease,” she added.

Psychiatrists therefore check in on hospitalized individuals as well as those in outpatient clinics to offer their services to help these patients deal with mental issues. The Institute’s psychiatry department includes three psychiatrists and one psychologist. They are often called upon to meet with people dealing with disease or about to undergo procedures such as heart transplants or implantation of artificial hearts. Dr. Brouillette also treats patients suffering from delirium (a state of severe confusion that can precede or follow a surgical intervention) or depression and anxiety.

Three research projects

In fact, anxiety is Dr. Brouillette’s main topic of interest. Her study titled Préoccupations congénitales focuses on anxiety in adults with congenital heart disease. With her Burnout study, she investigated anxiety, professional burnout, and post-traumatic stress disorders in health care workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Finally, her Torsade study examines the real impact of certain psychotropic drugs on a rare form of arrythmia.

In addition to her studies on the relationship between the heart and the brain, Dr. Brouillette wants to destigmatise mental health disorders. That’s because mental-well being is an intrinsic part of a person’s overall state of health. “If you want to take care of a person’s cardiovascular health, you also need to take care of their mental well-being,” she said.

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