by Lisa Winter
Approximately 9.6 million American adults have been diagnosed with serious mental illness (SMI), and a new study indicates that this could have a bigger impact on lifespan than smoking cigarettes, due to an increased risk of suicide and other high-risk behaviors. A team of researchers led by Seena Fazel of Oxford University came to this conclusion following a meta-analysis of over 400 papers. Their full analysis was published in World Psychiatry.
The average lifespan in the US and UK is 76.4 and 79.5, respectively. Smoking heavily can take an average of 8-10 years off of that time. However, mental illness and the tendency for suicide and other high-risk behavior including substance abuse can reduce the average lifespan by 10-20 years. The meta-analysis considered over 400 papers and ultimately used 20 papers to compare 20 different mental illnesses in a total of 1.7 million people and over 250,000 fatalities. Where longevity is concerned, certain mental illnesses are on par with smoking a pack or more a day.
“There are likely to be many reasons for this. High-risk behaviors are common in psychiatric patients, especially drug and alcohol abuse, and they are more likely to die by suicide,” explained Fazel in a press release. “The stigma surrounding mental health may mean people aren’t treated as well for physical health problems when they do see a doctor.”
Of course, not all illnesses had equal risk. Those with bipolar disorder have an average lifespan decreased by 9-20 years. Schizophrenia is 10-20 years, depression is 7-11, and those who abuse drugs and alcohol could have their lives reduced by as much as 9-24 years.
A lesser known aspect of mental illness is the profound physical effects it can have. The total breadth of physical ailments is quite extensive, but it spans metabolic disorders, respiratory disease, sexual disorders, cardiovascular disease, and even pregnancy complications. Mental illness can exacerbate certain physical ailments, as they are less likely to seek appropriate medical care.
However, Fazel believes this unfortunate trend can be reversed: “All of this can be changed. 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.”
He also adds that mental and physical health should be treated hand in hand, and not as two separate entities. Considerable money has been spent researching and educating the public about the dangers of tobacco, and Fazel believes a similar approach should be taken with mental health.
“People with mental health problems are among the most vulnerable in society,” Fazel continues. “This work emphasizes how crucial it is that they have access to appropriate healthcare 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.”