Last updated July 24, 2019 at 10:11 am
New research has highlighted the toll that mental illness can have on our physical health, and in some cases it can even reduce our life expectancy.
People suffering from mental illnesses face drastic physical health challenges, according to an Aussie-led task force which found they could experience a gap in life expectancy of around 20 years.
The report, published in The Lancet Psychiatry earlier this week, found a broad range of mental illnesses are associated with a lifelong burden of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It makes a range of lifestyle and healthcare recommendations to combat the huge disparities faced by these vulnerable populations.
Disparities in physical health outcomes are “a human rights scandal”
According to chair of the commission Joseph Firth, from the NICM Health Research Institute at Western Sydney University, “the disparities in physical health outcomes for people with mental illness are currently regarded as a human rights scandal”.
“It’s not only a gap in life expectancy but a gap in the quality of life and the physical health burden that affects people with mental illness right across [ages], including people of quite a young age,” he says in a briefing with the AusSMC earlier this week.
But the researchers say simply telling people to eat right and exercise just won’t cut it.
The idea of dualism – treating the mind and the body separately – is an outdated approach to healthcare, they say.
And while improving physical health will not cure mental illness, it can help reduce symptoms and the risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.
A healthy lifestyle is difficult for many Australians
“When you compound that with living with a mental illness and the issues associated with that … it’s actually very difficult for people to engage in these sorts of behaviours. They need adequate support, they need time.”
This point is especially relevant as many psychiatric medications reduce motivation, make people feel lethargic or increase food cravings and the report found these side-effects can play a direct role in causing disease, if left untreated.
The researchers hope the commission’s findings can serve as a blueprint for healthcare professionals treating patients suffering from mental illness.
Commission co-author, Brendon Stubbs from King’s College London says: “Through this commission we have set out ambitious goals to provide an opportunity and directions to help people with mental illness improve their physical health and not only add years to their life, but also add life to their years.”
Health services are there, but aren’t being used
The team recommend physical health interventions start to become a core component of mental healthcare.
According to Rosenbaum, these services are already available in Australia, and doctors can refer patients to dietitians, physiologists and the like, but these services are entirely under-utilised and often forgotten.
“That’s partly due to awareness and education, but it’s also due to a lack of knowledge about where providers are,” he says.
You can find the AusSMC briefing and SMC NZ Expert Reaction here.