Mental illness takes a toll on our physical health too

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  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.

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Mental illness takes a toll on the body. Credit: Carlo107/Getty Images

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The idea of dualism – treating the mind and the body separately – is an outdated approach to healthcare, they say.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

The commission’s lifestyle lead, Simon Rosenbaum from UNSW Sydney, says: “The general population find it difficult to engage in healthy lifestyles. There are a lot of barriers.”

“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.

“The evidence is very clear that having non-traditional services — exercise physiology, dietetics, allied health — should actually be a routine part of mental health treatment,” Rosenbaum says.

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.

If you, or someone you know needs help with mental health, help is available from Lifeline on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.


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About the Author

Olivia Henry
Olivia Henry is Media Officer at the Australian Science Media Centre. She spends her days nerding out about the latest research in the hopes that journalists will nerd out too. Olivia has Bachelor’s degrees in Biomedical Science and Media (Journalism), and has studied in Japan and Spain. Before joining the AusSMC in 2018, Olivia worked at Fairfax Media, SciWorld, Channel 44 Adelaide and interned at Australia's Science Channel. If you like this super-funky-science-machine, you can catch her talking science on 2CC Canberra or hosting the Night Shift on Radio Adelaide.

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The Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) is an independent, not-for-profit service for the news media, giving journalists direct access to evidence-based science and expertise. We aim to better inform public debate on the major issues of the day by improving links between the media and the scientific community. The Centre works with journalists to help them cover science as well as identify the science angles in everyday news stories and works with the scientific community to help them interact more effectively with the media and ensure that their voices are heard on issues of national importance.

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