Mental illness means shorter life expectancy but physical health is key, experts say

People with mental illnesses face a gap in life expectancy of about 20 years, a new Australian-led report suggests, and experts say early intervention in physical health is a key to closing that gap.

“The disparities in physical health outcomes for people with mental illness are currently regarded as a human rights scandal,” said Dr Joseph Firth, chairman of the Lancet Psychiatry Commission*.

Andrew Skelton was part of the Keeping Body in Mind program, which combines mental health care with physical exercise.

Andrew Skelton was part of the Keeping Body in Mind program, which combines mental health care with physical exercise.CREDIT:JANIE BARRETT

“The actual extent of these inequalities is growing with time, it’s actually becoming worse, the difference in life expectancy between people with mental illness and the general population.”

Early intervention in physical health is one of the main recommendations that came out of 12 months of research, Dr Firth said.

 

“It’s actually much easier and much more feasible when we’re talking about preventing these conditions from arising rather than trying to reverse the condition after it’s arisen.”

The commission’s lifestyle section lead, Dr Simon Rosenbaum, said there was an intricate link between physical and mental health and while physical health is not a cure for mental illness, it does help reduce symptoms.

“There’s strong evidence now exercise can reduce symptoms in a range of mental disorders, from PTSD to depression, anxiety, schizophrenia,” he said.

‘Benefited me enormously’

Andrew Skelton, 26, was on antidepressants and seeing a counsellor every week when he joined a Sydney program that tackles both mental and physical health.

 

The Keeping the Body in Mind (KBIM) program, run by the South Eastern Sydney Local Health District, is designed to help young people stay fit and healthy as they start treatment and medication for psychosis.

Mr Skelton, who was discharged from the program in January, said it had been “really fantastic” in helping him take up running and set fitness goals.

Mr Skelton said the program has helped him develop an exercise routine which keeps his mood higher.

Mr Skelton said the program has helped him develop an exercise routine which keeps his mood higher.CREDIT:JANIE BARRETT

“I’ve found that exercise has been really effective for helping me when I’m feeling acutely anxious and also just in terms of just keeping my mood higher, at a more healthy level,” he said.

“It’s something that I’m enjoying a lot and has benefited me enormously.”

 

Clinical director of the program, Dr Jackie Curtis, said they employ an exercise physiologist, a dietitian, a specialist mental health nurse and a peer worker, to help motivate young people as they are beginning treatment for psychosis.

“We evaluated the 12-week lifestyle intervention, and we found that we were able to prevent antipsychotic drug-induced weight gain,” she said.

Cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes contribute to life expectancy gap

Cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes had some of the largest effects on the mortality rate of people with mental illness, according to the report published in Lancet Psychiatry on Wednesday.

Dr Firth, who is a senior research fellow at NICM Health Research Institute, Western Sydney University, said all common and severe mental disorders were associated with a double or a three-fold risk of these diseases.

 

“[These diseases] impact on quality of life and recovery, while contributing towards a 20-year gap in life expectancy currently experienced by this undeserved population.”

 

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