The Western world has been engaged in a long and brutal war against smoking, a war that has spanned the last few decades. This campaign is understandable, as heavy smoking has been proven to decrease an individual's life expectancy by 8 to 10 years. However, earlier this week, researchers from Oxford University released an analysis which reveals that mental illness may reduce an individual's life expectancy more than smoking. In the press release, Dr Seena Fazel of the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University explained: “We found that many mental health diagnoses are associated with a drop in life expectancy as great as that associated with smoking 20 or more cigarettes a day.”
The analysis determined that the average reduction in life expectancy in people with bipolar disorder is between 9 and 20 years, while it is 10 to 20 years for schizophrenia, between 9 and 24 years for drug and alcohol abuse, and around 7 to 11 years for recurrent depression. These findings were published in the journal World Psychiatry.
In order to formulate their figures, the researchers attempted to locate the most reliable reviews of clinical studies which reported the mortality risk for a range of mental illnesses. All in all, twenty review papers were utilized, which included over 1.7 million individuals and over 250,000 deaths.
The authors note that there are many potential causes for this decrease in life expectancy. One of the most obvious is suicide; however, this is not the only culprit. There is an unfortunate (and unforgivable) stigma attached to those who have a mental illness. Typically, people with mental conditions are seen as being weak or unable to cope with everyday occurrences (and these are just the most common stereotypes; there are a host of others). Ultimately, this stereotyping causes many individuals to ignore their symptoms and refuse medical treatment. Additionally, our society has a tendency to separate mental and physical illness; however, there are a host of physical ailments that often come with mental illness. Dr. Fazel clarifies this point by noting that, "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."
Of course, the purpose of this study is not to incite fear, but to call for change. Our culture focuses on hot button issues like smoking while many other (equally serious) issues fall by the wayside. Dr. Fazel continues by asserting that now is the time for change—that now is the time to do away with outdated and inaccurate stigmas and seriously invest in helping those in need: "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."
Any who have seen the increase in violence and suicide rates in Western society cannot deny the legitimacy of this call to action.
Dr John Williams, Head of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the Wellcome Trust, reinforces this point: "People with mental health problems are among the most vulnerable in society. This work emphasises 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."
This is one issue that we need to take seriously, as time is running out (literally) for many individuals. Some hard facts: One in four adults (approximately 61.5 million Americans) experience mental illness in a given year. One in 17 (about 13.6 million) live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.
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