5 September 2016

People who have serious mental health problems are five times more likely than the general population to experience cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, dental and optical problems, and osteoporosis. These health issues reduce life expectancy by approximately 20 years less than people who don’t experience mental health issues.

Chronic illnesses are associated with the use of psychiatric medications, or arise as a result of side effects such as weight gain. Yet, all of these illnesses can be medically treated and managed by lifestyle changes, including physical activity, ceased or reduced tobacco, drug and alcohol use, and improved diet. It’s shocking and unacceptable that preventable illnesses cause early death for people who have mental health issues. Information about such risks and how to manage them should be widely available, but it’s not. A 2014 study found that “only 4.2% of websites informing the public about mental health contained information about the increased risk of physical illness”. Public health campaigns and information provided on the internet could make all the difference by offering the possibility of prevention and early intervention.

What’s also unacceptable is that people who have serious mental health problems also have significantly less access to physical medical treatment than the general population. Wellways consumers and their families confirm this, saying that when they attend GP appointments about physical health concerns, doctors often want to shift the focus to the person’s mental health. Some people believe that this is a form of stigma—that the ‘whole person’ isn’t seen, just the mental illness.

Families say that they experience debilitating physical and mental health issues as a consequence of their caring role. They also report that when attending GP appointments with the person they care for, their own health needs are invisible.

Medical practitioners should develop greater awareness and higher responsiveness to the physical issues raised above. By knowing the risks, they can provide anticipatory care. Mental health services also have a responsibility to assist people with physical concerns. Wellways staff, participants and families co-designed a tool to help detect physical problems, which can also help to lead physical health conversations with GPs. You can access the physical health screening tool here.

Tell us if you have had physical health issues and difficulties accessing information or treatment (advocacy@wellways.org).