People with mental illness experience a range of health disparities and face a gap in life expectancy of about 20 years in a plight classed as a “human rights scandal”, according to a new ground-breaking study.
Led by Australian researchers, the report found a broad range of mental illnesses are connected to health problems including a lifelong burden of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, leading to years of lost life.
Key risk factors identified included higher rates of smoking, sleep disturbance, physical inactivity, an unhealthy diet, the side-effects of psychotic medications and a lack of access to physical healthcare.
Published this week in The Lancet Psychiatry journal, the report, titled The Lancet Psychiatry Commission: a blueprint for protecting physical health in people with mental illness, was undertaken by a taskforce of more than 30 global experts and led by researchers from Western Sydney University’s NICM Health Research Institute.
Researchers set out to uncover the extent of physical health disparities in people with mental illness, highlight the key modifiable factors that drive poor health, and develop ways for health policy and clinical services to tackle the issue.
The report recommends adopting an ‘early intervention’ strategy towards protecting physical health from the initial stages of illness and multidisciplinary lifestyle treatments targeting a range of behaviours such as physical activity and healthy eating.
It also calls for better integration of physical and mental healthcare and evidence-based use of psychiatric and cardioprotective medications for people with mental illness.
Chair of the Lancet Psychiatry Commission, Dr Joseph Firth, senior research fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, said the study provided an important step towards addressing the profound physical health inequities confronting people with mental illness.
“Patients with mental illness are two to three times more likely to have obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases – which impacts on quality of life and recovery, while contributing towards a 20-year gap in life expectancy,” Dr Firth explained.
“These comorbidities begin to arise early on, and affect people with mental illness across the entire lifespan. Protecting the physical health of people with mental illness should be considered an international priority for reducing the personal, social and economic burden of these conditions.”
UNSW Sydney academic, Dr Simon Rosenbaum, argued lifestyle interventions to improve physical health must become an essential part of mental healthcare from diagnosis.
He said the Commission found widespread lack of implementation of evidence-based lifestyle interventions among people with mental illness.
“We must take ‘what works’ from effective interventions for improving physical activity, diet and cardiovascular health in the general population and find innovative and cost-effective ways for making these interventions a standard part of care for those treated for mental illness.”
NICM Health Research Institute’s Professor Jerome Sarris, a co-author in the Commission, said the large disparities in physical health experienced by people with mental illness was potentially growing and that urgent action needs to be taken.
“The connection between physical health and mental health is now more recognised than ever. Although this inequity is increasingly gaining attention, further investment, intervention and research are urgently required to address the premature mortality and lifelong burden of poor physical health associated with mental illness.”