Report brands mental health life expectancy gap a ‘human rights scandal’ 

A new study has found that people who suffer from mental health problems face a life expectancy gap of around 20 years compared to those who do not, regarding it as a ‘human rights scandal’. 

Although it has been understood by health professionals for “over half a century” that those who have mental health problems seem to die younger than those who do not, the report reveals why this happens, and how there is increased co-morbidity between certain mental and physical health problems — greatly reducing and impacting the lives of sufferers.

The report, published in the Lancet, found that a range of mental illnesses are associated with an increased risk of diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease, which all contribute toward a lower life expectancy. 

Risk factors include excessive alcohol consumption, higher rates of smoking, sleep disruption, inactivity, an unhealthy diet and side effects of certain psychiatric drugs. These all contribute towards poorer physical health and increased risk of premature mortality. 

For example, a sufferer of depression has a 40 per cent increased risk of developing cardiac disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, metabolic syndrome or obesity than the general population. 

The only condition that did not fit the mould was anorexia nervosa, which had a reduced prevalence of diabetes. However, anorexia sufferers face a 12 times increased risk of developing osteoporosis, and it remains the mental health condition with the highest premature mortality rate. 

With more and more people being prescribed antidepressants, the study suggests that “further research is required to establish the population burden of the cardiometabolic side effects of drugs for depression, particularly from long-term use”, given the high volume with which they are prescribed. 

Dr Joseph Firth, the chair of the commission that carried out the research, said “…clearly, 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.”

The report highlighted that improving physical health must become a key part of mental health treatment if the life expectancy gap is to minimise.

However, years of underfunded services has led to many people receiving inadequate — or no — treatment, leaving them at risk of deteriorating not just mentally, but physically, potentially shortening and reducing quality of life. With the introduction of IAPT services by the NHS over the past couple of years, access to services for individuals suffering from “common” issues, such an anxiety and depression, has become more straightforward, but waiting lists remain long. 

Given this new evidence linking mental health to poorer physical health, which potentially increases the burden of mental health disorders on society and the economy on a much wider scale than previously thought, will politicians finally take note and act accordingly to tackle the ever increasing public health crisis on their doorstep?

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