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I am a 29 year old woman diagnosed with bipolar disorder type 1 and also suffer from general anxiety and panic attacks. I have only been recently diagnosed but have been ill since I was a teenager. I tend to have mixed-manic episodes, hence the name of my blog. I am a regular guest blogger for Black Dog Tribe. I am not a mental health professional. I am just writing from my own experiences with mental illness. If you wish to use any of my blog content please contact me at lababup@gmail.com. Visit me on twitter @lababup

Friday, 23 May 2014

Is life expectancy all that matters when we treat those with mental health problems?

Today I saw an article with the following title: ‘Mental illness can reduce life expectancy more than smoking’. You can find the article here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-oxfordshire-27518408. It is based around research done by scientists in the Psychiatry Department at Oxford. Their research found that the life expectancy of someone with, say, bipolar was between 9 and 20 years less than average. People with other mental illnesses also had significantly lower life expectancies. I found these statistics quite shocking.

So what is the reason behind these lower life expectancies? The article cites suicide and risky behaviours associated with mental illness as contributing factors. Other possibilities mentioned in similar articles include physical illness overlooked by professionals, side effects from medication and an increased chance of developing cardiovascular problems and diabetes. All of these factors are worrying. 

I have had experience with one of these problems recently: I have found that I have not been taken seriously by doctors when complaining of physical symptoms. Any symptom I have had has been dismissed as being caused by anxiety or bipolar or a side effect of the medication I am on. I have even had bizarre symptoms being dismissed, like a mild finger deformity I have recently developed. It is easy to see how serious physical illness can be missed in a patient with mental illness. The reality is that people with mental health problems are just as likely as anyone else to suffer from physical illness, perhaps even more so. Doctors need to be more aware of this.

I think that many people will be surprised by how much lower life expectancies are for people with mental health problems. Perhaps it will cause some people to take mental health problems more seriously, which is a good thing. When people read about something tangible, like a reduced life expectancy, they may be moved to some sort of action to prevent this.

However, there is a danger of only taking mental health conditions seriously when they cause a reduced life expectancy. Early death isn’t the only way sufferers are affected by a mental health problem. Mental illness causes intense suffering whilst people are still alive! Every day millions of people around the world struggle with illnesses like bipolar, depression, anxiety, anorexia, OCD, borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia. Many of them will not die young or commit suicide but their suffering and disability is no less real. It is only less tangible to the public. There are no ways to properly measure this suffering but the sheer number of people with these conditions gives some indication of the extent of the problem.

Yes, we need to tackle the reduced life expectancy of those with mental illness. However, we need to be aware that people can also be severely disabled by mental health conditions. Their social life, potential for work and ability to lead a fulfilling life are all compromised. We must work on helping those with mental health problems because we care about their quality of life as well as their reduced life expectancy. We must help people because it is the humane thing to do. 

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