The results of a brand new study carried out by researchers at Oxford University is telling us that mental health problems can be just as deadly as smoking twenty or more cigarettes a day. This is shocking news considering that one in four of us will experience a mental health problem at some point.
Shortened life expectancy
According to the researchers, people who smoke twenty cigarettes a day shorten their lives by about eight to ten years, and if we compare this to what the Oxford study found, people with recurrent depression have a shortened life expectancy of between seven and eleven years. It’s worse for other types of mental illness. People with Bipolar disorder have a reduction in life expectancy of between nine and twenty years, and between ten to twenty years for Schizophrenia. By far the worst result was for people with drug and alcohol problems; their life expectancy was reduced by up to 24 years.
The report stated that people with mental health problems in the UK have a similar life expectancy to people living in North Korea or Bangladesh. So why is this?
Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust suggests that people with mental health problems may not be getting access to the care they need.
“People with mental health problems are among the most vulnerable in society” said Dr Williams.
“This work emphasises how crucial it is that they have access to appropriate health care and advice, which is not always the case. We now have strong evidence that mental illness is just as threatening to life expectancy as other public health threats such as smoking.”
The researchers looked at data from 20 separate studies covering all sorts of mental health problems as well as drug and alcohol abuse. The information came from data on more than 1.7 million people and included approximately 250,000 deaths. This information was then compared to data on heavy smoking.
The author of the Oxford study, Dr Seena Fazel of the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University explains why there might be a drop in life expectancy.
“There are likely to be many reasons for this. High risk behaviours are common in psychiatric patients, especially drug and alcohol abuse, and they are more likely to die by suicide.”
Dr Fazel also highlighted the need for appropriate care.
“The stigma surrounding mental health may mean people aren’t treated as well for physical health problems when they do go to see a doctor” said Dr Fazel who explained that one problem is the tendency to separate mental illness from physical illness.
“Many causes of mental health problems also have physical consequences and mental illness worsens the prognosis of a range of physical illnesses, especially heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Unfortunately, people with serious mental illnesses may not access healthcare effectively” said Fazel, who also believes that it doesn’t have to be like that.
“All of this can be changed” explained Fazel.
It can be done
“There are effective drug and psychological treatments for mental health problems. We can improve mental health and social care provision. That means making sure people have straightforward access to health care and appropriate jobs and meaningful daytime activities. It’ll be challenging, but it can be done”.
No one would deny that smoking is a huge health problem and that many measures have been put in place by governments and media campaigns to reduce the number of people smoking and that these have been on the whole quite effective. Currently it is estimated that around twenty percent of the population smoke and statistics are starting to show that smoking related deaths are on the decline. However, just under half of the people who smoke have some sort of mental health problem.
The study does show how important it is that professionals pay particular attention to the physical health of people with mental health problems and not to focus on the mental health symptoms alone.
“Psychiatrists have a particular responsibility as doctors to ensure that the physical health of their patients is not neglected” said Dr Fazel.
“De-medicalization of psychiatric services mitigates against that” he added.
“What we do need is for researchers, care providers and governments to make mental health a much higher priority for research and innovation. Smoking is recognised as a huge public health problem. There are effective ways to target smoking, and with political will and funding, rates of smoking-related deaths have started to decline. We now need a similar effort in mental health”.
The study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and has been published in the Journal World Psychiatry.