More than a third of the 100,000 avoidable deaths in England every year are people with mental illness, figures from a charity have revealed.
The statistics from Rethink Mental Illness are part of a report published by the charity, which is being backed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. ‘Lethal Discrimination’ calls on the Government to take action to reduce the number of people with mental ill health who are dying unnecessarily, and outlines simple changes that it says could save thousands of lives.
Rethink Mental Illness’ statistics do not include suicide, but are due to the fact that people with mental ill health are more likely to die from preventable physical illnesses than the rest of the population.
There are a number of factors that put people with severe mental illness at an increased risk of illness. For example, more than 40% of all cigarettes are smoked by people with mental illness, but they are less likely to be given support to quit.
In addition, less than 30% of people with severe mental illness get a basic annual physical health check. Rethink Mental Illness also found that some health professionals fail to take people with mental illness seriously when they raise concerns about their physical health.
The effects of medication are also not often considered. People gain an average of 13lbs in the first two months of taking antipsychotics and this continues over the first year. But despite this, in some areas, 70% of people in this group are not having their weight monitored.
Call to minister
Yet Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent ‘call to action’ on addressing premature mortality barely touched on the physical health of people with mental illness, and recent audits show the NHS is failing to take this issue seriously. According to Rethink Mental Illness, this represents a huge blind spot in government policy.
The charity is calling on Hunt to ensure that the premature mortality strategy, which is due to be published in the autumn, makes explicit commitments to tackling this issue.
Paul Jenkins, CEO of Rethink Mental Illness, said: “If Jeremy Hunt is serious about wanting to reduce the number of people dying needlessly every year, he can’t afford to ignore people with mental illness. We know this group is at a much higher risk of early death. We also know that there are simple solutions like targeted support to give up smoking and regular physical health checks, which could save thousands of lives.
“While there are some pockets of good practice in the system, most people with mental illness are being badly let down when it comes to their physical health. This means tens of thousands of people are dying needlessly every year and many more are left struggling with long-term conditions such as diabetes.
“By not acting, the government is allowing some of the most vulnerable people in our society to be treated as second class citizens. We know what the solutions are and they are not complex or expensive. All we need now is the political will to make change happen.”
Other key recommendations in the report include:
• People with mental illness should be offered tailored support to quit smoking, and smoking cessation teams should proactively be supporting this group
• Patients should be told about the side-effects of antipsychotic medication so they can look out for warning signs and GPs should monitor them closely
• All mental health professionals should receive basic physical health training as part of their mandatory training
• It should be made clear who is responsible for the physical health of people with mental ill health, as currently it falls between primary and secondary care.
Professor Sue Bailey, president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, wrote the foreword for report and is backing its calls. She said: “The fact that people with serious mental illness die an average of 20 years earlier than the rest of the population is one of the biggest health scandals of our time, but it is being ignored.
“If this statistic applied to any other group of people, such as residents of a particular town, there would be public outcry. Questions would be asked about why these people are being so badly let down by health services and politicians would call for targeted support. But this simply isn’t happening for people with mental illness.
“Failure to address this issue amounts to a form of lethal discrimination which is costing lives.”