Despite nationwide strides in awareness and advocacy, many still don’t take mental health seriously, often because its effects are often intangible or difficult to measure. However, recent findings from U.S. News’ Healthiest Communities 2019 rankings show the lasting impact untreated mental illness can have on physical health. The report found that poor self-reported mental health can shorten life expectancy as much as diabetes, smoking and lack of exercise. 

How does mental illness affect life expectancy so dramatically? Can treatment counteract these effects? The answers to these questions can help people better understand the factors that contribute to increased mortality rates, the ways professional care can help and the reasons people with mental health conditions may be reluctant to seek out potentially life-changing care. 

How Mental Illness Impacts Life Expectancy

According to the World Health Organization, people with severe mental health disorders have a 10–25-year reduction in life expectancy. Schizophrenia mortality rates are between 2 and 2.5 times those in the general population, while individuals with depression have a 1.8 times higher risk of premature mortality. Bipolar disorder has also been known to have a significant impact on life expectancy, with premature mortality rates 35–50% higher than that of the general population. 

These mortality rates are rarely directly caused by the symptoms of mental health conditions, but rather the effects these symptoms can have on overall health and life circumstances. 

Mental illness increases the risk of several factors that are known to decrease life expectancy, including: 

  • Chronic health conditions
  • Infectious disease
  • Poor self-care
  • Poverty
  • Suicide

The way mental health conditions increase a person’s chances of developing these risk factors and the way these risk factors influence one another is complex. 

Physical Health

Let’s start with mental illness’ impacts on physical health. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, Canadians who report symptoms of depression also experience three times as many chronic physical conditions as those who don’t have this mental illness. Depression and schizophrenia are both risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes. Among people with severe mental disorders, cardiovascular disease is one of the leading causes of death. These individuals also have higher-than-expected rates of infectious diseases, like HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis. 

Many symptoms of mental health disorders can leave people more vulnerable to these physical ailments. Some mental illnesses can disrupt hormone balance and sleep cycles, which may impact immune function and overall health. High stress levels, increased food cravings and decreased energy may also make individuals less likely to exercise and more likely to be obese, which can lead to poorer health outcomes overall. 

Additionally, people with untreated mental health conditions are more likely to cope with emotional discomfort by using drugs or alcohol, which can also be detrimental to health. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, about half of people with a mental health condition also develop a substance use disorder at some point in their lives. 

Increased substance use rates also include increased rates of tobacco use. The prevalence of smoking is three times higher among people with mental health conditions than that of the general population. Regular tobacco use can diminish overall health and increase the risk of many of the physical health conditions people with mental health conditions disproportionately struggle with, including coronary heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. 

Poverty

Many of the same symptoms that can lead to an increased risk of physical health conditions can make it difficult for people living with chronic mental health conditions to find stable employment, which may increase their risk of poverty. Poverty, in turn, often exacerbates symptoms of mental health conditions and results in increased stress, higher health care costs and decreased productivity, according to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. It can also result in poor nutrition, which may lead to further declines in physical and mental wellness.

Suicide

Suicide accounts for an estimated 1.4% of all deaths worldwide. Some figures suggest that at least 90% of those who died of suicide had a mental health disorder. After chronic health conditions and infectious diseases, suicide is one of the leading causes of premature death among people with mental health conditions. 

While suicide risk can vary depending on the specific mental illness someone has, some studies estimate that individuals with severe mental health disorders, like depression, schizophrenia and alcoholism, have a 5–8% risk of suicide. Depression and substance use disorder are the most common mental health diagnoses among suicide victims. 

How Treatment Can Help

Having a mental health condition often feels like an uphill battle. Experiencing severe symptoms can make it challenging to imagine the possibility of relief. Fortunately, treatment methods have improved dramatically in recent years as the medical community gains more information about treatments with high rates of success for a wide range of mental health conditions. 

In one study, approximately 85% of severely depressed patients respond to electroconvulsive therapy. Studies show that among people who receive treatment for schizophrenia, about 25% experience positive recovery and 50% show improvements in symptoms over a 10-year period. Nearly one-third of people who undergo bipolar disorder treatment with lithium experience total prevention of further episodes for ten years or more. Methods like cognitive behavioral therapy have been shown to be highly effective for treating anxiety, depression, eating disorders, insomnia and personality disorders. 

With professional interventions, most who have moderate or severe mental health conditions find at least some degree of relief from their symptoms, and many experience dramatic improvements. As symptoms subside and new coping skills are learned, people tend to gravitate toward healthier lifestyle choices and ways of thinking. These changes can dramatically improve physical health and decrease suicide risk. Mental health care may also provide an opportunity for people to seek support that can increase economic security. 

Why More People Don’t Seek Professional Care

If treatment can lead to such dramatic improvements in quality and length of life for people with mental health conditions, why aren’t more people getting the help they need? 

Unfortunately, some symptoms of mental illness act as barriers to professional care, including low motivation and energy. Severe mental health disorders can also increase a person’s risk of poverty and unemployment, which in turn tend to make it difficult to secure affordable health care options. Stigma from medical professionals, self-stigma and social isolation may also play a role in a person’s unwillingness to seek treatment for a mental health condition. 

Because of these factors, it’s crucial that health care organizations collectively push for legislative efforts to increase access to general health services and create robust protocols for preventing, identifying, assessing and treating mental health conditions. This way, mental health conditions can be recognized as soon as possible, and people can receive care that could dramatically improve their quality of life — or even save it. 

In many cases, mental health conditions co-occur with drug and alcohol abuse. If you or a loved one is living with addiction and mental health challenges, treatment is available. The Recovery Village offers care for co-occurring substance use and mental health disorders at treatment centers across the country. Reach out to a representative today for more information.

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