Each year, 12,000 people with serious mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, die prematurely from heart disease – on average 20 years earlier than the general population, which gives them a similar life expectancy to the 1950s. In addition, 18,000 people with common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression will also die early. This connection between physical health and mental health was noted in the British Medical Journal as long as 60 years ago. Yet only last year the Mental Health Foundation reported that NHS physical health and mental health care were largely disconnected, and that, though integration was supported in principle, it was not delivered in practice.
Michael Knapton, associate medical director of the British Heart Foundation, says: “It is a failure of the specialisation of medicine where doctors look after an organ, rather than a person. But it is people who walk into a clinic.”
People with a mental illness are five times more likely to smoke than those who do not, and are likely to drink more alcohol, have a poorer diet and take less exercise (40% of people with schizophrenia are obese) – all of which will increase the risk of developing heart disease. But much of the medication taken to alleviate the symptoms of mental illness can have side effects that conspire against living a healthy life.