Most of the developed world has made concerted efforts to discourage tobacco use. A practice that once engulfed the planet has now, in many places, become socially taboo. In the U.S., warnings about the dangers of smoking appear on every pack of cigarettes, and tobacco use among younger people has gone down. When the public and the government join hands to address a problem, things turn around.
Mental Illness, Tobacco Exact a Similar Toll
Now, research from the University of Oxford in England shows that having an untreated serious mental health condition could shorten a person’s life by as many as one to two decades. That outcome is nearly identical to the reduced life expectancy caused by smoking tobacco. It’s an important comparison because, in the U.K. at least, mental illness affects about the same number of people as those who smoke cigarettes. Around 25 percent of people in the U.K. are expected to experience a mental health problem during any given year. That figure is comparable to the number of men (21 percent) and women (19 percent) in Britain who smoke tobacco.
The investigators examined 20 systematic reviews that yielded information on the mortality risks associated with such health problems as mental illness, autistic disorders, early behavior disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, learning disabilities and dementia. Together, the reviews represented 1.7 million people and a quarter of a million deaths.
Researchers found that the mortality risks for serious mental health conditions were similar to, and in some cases greater than, those for heavy tobacco use. Here are the figures:
- Heavy smoking lowers life expectancy by 8-10 years
- Recurring depression lowers life expectancy by 7-11 years
- Bipolar disorder reduces life expectancy by 9-20 years
- Schizophrenia shortens life by 10-20 years
- Drug or alcohol abuse cuts 9-24 years from a person’s life expectancy
Dr. Seena Fazel was part of the review team. Fazel said that mental health risks were often found to be akin to mortality risks associated with smoking 20 cigarettes per day.
Why is serious mental illness associated with increased mortality risk? One explanation is that patients with mental health issues also frequently engage in high-risk behavior. Alcohol and drug abuse are especially common among the mental health patient population. Suicide is also a significant risk among this population.
Another reason that mental health outcomes are so poor may be because so few get help. The stigma attached to mental illness remains and it keeps many people from seeking and receiving the help they need to overcome these health challenges.
Mental Health and Physical Health Connected
Mental health problems are inextricably linked to physical health problems. The longer a mental illness goes untreated and is allowed to worsen, the more likely it is that serious physical health problems will also arise. And, says Fazel, people with advanced mental illness are also less likely than others to get proper medical attention. It is a potentially deadly downward spiral.
There is a way to reverse the spiral, however. Treating mental health conditions can start a person on an upward trajectory toward improved physical health. The Oxford authors call for the same public commitment to treating mental health disorders that has been directed toward anti-smoking efforts.