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Poor mental health could be behind an increase in chronic disease in Australia, research from the University of Western Australia has found.

The study, published in Social Science & Medicine, established strong associations between poor mental health and health behaviour and found that psychological distress caused unhealthy lifestyle behaviour in men.

Lead author Dan Hoang, who completed the study during his Honours year at UWA’s School of Population and Global Health, said the researchers found unhealthy behaviour such as poor diet, smoking, binge drinking and lack of exercise, which contribute to chronic diseases, was a direct result of psychological distress, particularly in men.

“Previous studies suggest that poor mental health is related to having poor lifestyle habits and our study has confirmed that large effects exist for men and women,” Mr Hoang said.

“However, what is of particular interest is what actually causes someone to develop poor health habits.

“Our research set out to explore whether a causal link from mental health to health behaviour existed. We found that poor mental health indeed caused people to participate in common behaviour that led to preventable chronic disease, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

“For women however, a causal link was less clear. Our data suggests that causality may be cyclical for women – that is, poor mental health causes poor health habits, which in turn worsens poor mental health and so on.”