(NaturalNews) Research carried out by psychiatrists at the University of Oxford and published in World Psychiatry has suggested that serious mental conditions could cut life expectancy by as much as 10 to 20 years. This makes the negative health impact of mental conditions as strong as, or even stronger than, cigarette smoking. These findings become more poignant considering that mental health issues are as prevalent as smoking.
Previous research in England published in the British Medical Journal in July 2012 had already shown that persons with mental health issues had lower life expectancy.
This time, the study team looked at a wide range of previous studies which covered over 1.7 million people, over 250,000 deaths, and a wide range of conditions - mental health issues, alcohol and substance abuse, dementia, autism, learning disabilities and childhood behavioral disorders. They found that all diagnoses which they studied exhibited increases in mortality risk, and many had risks similar to or higher than heavy smoking.
"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," said Dr Seena Fazel from the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University.
Heavy smokers suffer a reduction of life expectancy of 8-10 years. For certain mental health conditions, the researchers had estimated the following average reductions in life expectancy:
• Bipolar disorder - 9-20 years • Schizophrenia - 10-20 years • Drug and alcohol abuse - 9-24 years • Recurrent depression - 7-11 years
Why is there a reduction in life expectancy for those suffering from mental health conditions?
"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. The stigma surrounding mental health may mean people aren't treated as well for physical health problems when they do see a doctor," said Dr Fazel.
The tendency to treat mental conditions and physical ailments as separate issues is also a problem.
"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," added Dr Fazel.
The Gap is widening
Research carried out in Australia and published in the British Medical Journal in May 2013 had revealed that the gap in life expectancy between mental illness patients and the overall population had widened since 1985. For all mental health conditions combined, the gap went up from 10 years in 1985 to 12 years in 2005 for females, and from 13 to 15 years for males.
More needs to be done for mental illness
An interesting point to note is that the prevalences of smoking and mental health issues are roughly similar. It is estimated that about 25% of people in the UK will face some form of mental health issue during a one-year period, while about 20% smoke cigarettes.
This, coupled with the similarity in reduction in life expectancy between the two, as well as the amount of effort expended on lowering smoking rates, suggests that there is a distinct lack of public resources devoted to mental health issues.
"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 recognized 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," suggested Dr Fazel.