Physical health often ignored in people with mental illness

Australians with severe mental illness are residing on average for 10-32 years less than the rest of the populace, mainly due to preventable and treatable disorders such as diabetes. No wonder, these ancient, preventable deaths are described as a scandal.

Clearly, people who have mental health issues such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are not benefiting from improvements in the prevention and treatment of physical disorder the rest of society loves.

A double whammy

Folks living with severe mental health issues are far more likely to be overweight, have diminished blood sugar levels (diabetes), and higher cholesterol, risk factors collectively referred to as metabolic syndrome. There are lots of reasons behind the high rate of physical disorder, a lot of which can be modified.

Medications used to treat mental illness, although a critical part of treatment, can influence people’s physical wellness. Some drugs can lead to significant weight gain, especially in the initial couple of years of treatment, (normally around 7kg within 12 weeks).

Higher hunger and diminished physical activity related to some drugs can also be major contributors to slimming down. These drugs have immediate metabolic effects including changes in blood sugar levels, probably because of alterations in hormones such as glucagon. Understandably these serious physical side effects can cause people not using their medicine.

Having a mental illness is associated with unhealthy eating, including excessive energy consumption and a bad diet high in refined foods and sugary beverages. This leads to obesity, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

It’s difficult enough to motivate the general population to take regular exercise and pick a wholesome diet. But in individuals living with mental illness, in which poor motivation can be an intrinsic part of the illness, these obstacles to a healthy lifestyle are compounded.

Another crucial issue is that the significant social disadvantage often related to mental illness, which makes a healthy lifestyle much harder. This obviously needs a whole-of-government response, to guarantee adequate assistance, infrastructure and financing to generate a wholesome lifestyle a fact.

Integrating body and mind

Mental health professionals usually concentrate on psychiatric disorders, and often feel unqualified to take care of physical health difficulties. This may lead to physical health issues being overshadowed and inadequately treated. Efforts are underway to make sure the mental health workforce is competent and confident at screening for physical health problems and routinely delivering postoperative interventions.

Reducing the burden of bad physical health among individuals with mental illness is no more a knowledge gap, rather it’s a failure of implementation.

Consider the entire individual, their general wellness and the relationship between body and mind.

This includes improving dietary habits, increasing physical activity and reducing smoking.

An important next step to promoting long-term change is ensuring health professionals receive appropriate graduate and postgraduate training which prepares them to supply real world interventions for this vulnerable population.

By way of instance, dietitians and exercise physiologists should receive training in psychopathology, while clinical students will need to be exposed to principles of lifestyle interventions along with the interrelationship between body and mind.

Modern mental health treatment goals incorporate a key focus on improving quality of life for individuals living with mental illness. Surely the first priority in achieving that goal has to be reaching equality of life expectancy to begin with.

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