Mental Illness More Dangerous to Health Than Smoking

Posted on August 15th, 2014

Mental Illness More Dangerous to Health Than SmokingThe ongoing public health campaign against smoking has seen quite a bit of success. The rate of smoking among adults in the United States has fallen from 42 percent in 1965 to 18 percent today, and similar declines have been seen in several other countries. These days, almost everyone knows about the health risks associated with cigarette smoking—heart disease, lung cancer, emphysema, stroke, nicotine addiction, etc.—and this is a testament to the thoroughness and effectiveness of anti-smoking publicity and educational initiatives.

But as dangerous as smoking is, a new study from Oxford University shows that mental health disorders lower life expectancy even more than heavy tobacco consumption. The psychiatrists responsible for this discovery chose to compare the deleterious physical health effects of mental illness and smoking in order to demonstrate the severity of the problem to medical authorities and government health agencies. Mental health troubles are in fact a strong predictor of physical health ailments and other behaviors that put physical health at risk, and this is a fact that, until now, has not been fully acknowledged.

To gain extensive and accurate information, the Oxford psychiatric research team collected data from scores of clinical studies involving more than 1.7 million people, including 250,000 who eventually died. These studies were dedicated to exploring the connection between mental health difficulties and increased rates of mortality.

The data was not entirely consistent from study to study, so the lifespan reduction estimates cover a fairly broad range. For example, it was found that bipolar disorder reduced life expectancy from nine to 20 years, schizophrenia from 10 to 20 years, substance abuse/addiction from nine to 24 years and clinical depression from seven to 11 years. But despite the uncertainty contained in these estimates, the negative impact of mental illness on survival and physical health is undeniable and clearly significant.

As hazardous as tobacco and nicotine consumption are, heavy smoking is not associated with the same level of reduced life expectancy. Long-term smokers with entrenched habits will lose about 10 living years as a result of their destructive behavior, matching the low end of the projections for the most common mental health disorders. But if the larger estimates are correct, mental illness may reduce life span twice as much as heavy smoking, making it the definition of a clear and present danger.

Why Does Mental Illness Reduce Life Span?

Various reasons have been offered to explain why people suffering from mental health disorders have reduced chances of survival. Some of the factors most frequently mentioned include:

  • Higher rates of suicide
  • Elevated levels of substance abuse and addiction
  • Highly stressful lifestyles
  • Poor impulse control leading to risky behavior
  • Poor diet and nutrition
  • Inability to report physical discomfort or ask for help when feeling ill
  • Financial troubles that make healthcare unaffordable
  • Too much focus on specific mental health issues at the expense of everything else

Life for those with mental health disorders is stressful, frustrating, isolating and difficult. All of this takes a heavy toll on physical health and overall wellness. Killer conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes often accompany long-term struggles with mental illness, and under-treatment makes them even more deadly for this fragile and vulnerable demographic group.

Mental Illness Puts One in Four at Major Risk

More than 26 percent of Americans aged 18 and older will suffer from an episode of mental illness in any given year. Without intervention and treatment, most of these problems will recur and continue to cause damage throughout the victims’ lifetimes. Mental health disorders are persistent, overwhelming and life-altering, and no one who develops one will ever be the same. But nevertheless, most of these problems are highly treatable and controllable.

Raised awareness about the risks associated with mental illness should include a complete understanding of how mind/body health is compromised by the presence of various psychological and emotional disorders. Caretakers and medical professionals must be fully informed to provide the best in proactive, preventive care and treatment services to mental health patients. It is unfair and unrealistic to expect those suffering from mental illness to ask for the help they need all on their own, yet that is exactly the situation that exists at the present time, and this is where things will remain if the status quo is left unchallenged.

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