Does having a mental illness shorten your life expectancy?

Recent research from the University of Melbourne has found that those with a severe mental illness, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, may live for 15 years less than someone considered ‘healthy’.

But there’s good news! The reasoning behind the shorter life expectancy isn’t due to the mental illness itself, but rather a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Why is this good news, you ask? Well, it’s preventable.

The main factors influencing this risk include a poor diet, limited physical activity and smoking. People living with a mental illness are often more prone to leading sedentary lifestyles. Researchers such as Dr Victoria Palmer from the University of Melbourne are determined to change this.

“It can be particularly hard for GPs to introduce these kinds of changes for people with severe mental illness,” Dr Palmer said.

“This is mainly because clinics might be uncomfortable, difficult to access and, sometimes, confronting; people can feel judged and the system is very fragmented.”

Quitting smoking or eating a healthier diet, while difficult even for those considered ‘healthy’, may pose a much greater obstacle to those dealing with a mental illness.

Although people with a severe mental illness visit their GP around 9 times a year, the focus may be more so on their mental health symptoms rather than physical health.

Although this seems a bit bleak, Dr Palmer and her team are working on the most effective ways to help people with severe mental illness ease in to the healthier lifestyle.

“The best option we have is to apply what we know works in the general population until we can develop more specific guidelines.”

Jess, a 24-year-old uni student and sales assistant from Sydney, has found that exercise and a healthy diet keeps her mental health in good condition.

“I need to be as active as possible, eat well, get enough sun exposure, take my medications daily, and have enough sleep, but not too much. It’s good for me to be with my family and friends, and to be kind to myself.”

It seems to be a good time for mental health research, with Jess also participating in the newly launched Genetics of Bipolar Disorder Study aiming to find the genes that could predispose someone to bipolar. If they identify the exact genes, it could make it easier to diagnose and treat bipolar.

Exciting things to come! The study is looking for 5,000 volunteers who have been treated for bipolar disorder. If you’ve been treated for bipolar disorder and you’d like to participate in the online survey, head to:

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