Severe mental illness and physical ailments: what's the link?

Thursday, 02 May, 2024

Severe mental illness and physical ailments: what's the link?

People with severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, are up to four times more likely to have two or more chronic physical health conditions, suggests a large-scale international study by the University of Queensland.

“This review sought to calculate how common multimorbidity, or the presence of two or more chronic health conditions, was between people living with and without severe mental illness,” said lead author, psychiatry registrar and UQ Faculty of Medicine PhD student Sean Halstead.

Halstead said people living with severe mental illness continued to face significant health inequity compared to the general population, particularly those aged under 40.

“Overall, we found people with severe mental illness are more than twice as likely to have two or more chronic physical health conditions.

“This gap is even greater in younger populations suffering from mental illness, with people under 40 more than four times more likely to have physical multimorbidity.”

People with severe mental illness also frequently experience additional psychiatric conditions, which adds to the complexity of their health.

“We found 1 in 7 people with a severe mental illness also had two or more additional psychiatric conditions,” Halstead said.

“These illnesses reduce life expectancy by 10 to 20 years on average, which is driven by the significant physical and psychological health challenges people with severe mental illness face.”

Psychiatrist and UQ researcher Professor Dan Siskind said the results showed this population faced a higher burden of chronic disease, both physical and mental illness, at a younger age.

“We know how important it is for all of the patient’s health conditions to be taken into account, to ensure treatment isn’t provided in isolation or within disciplinary silos,” Siskind said.

“There is a need for integrated and multidisciplinary care approaches that consider both the physical and mental health of the person being treated.”

This review was conducted at UQ and involved researchers from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, Oxford University, Manchester University and Kings College London. Halstead, Associate Professor Nicola Warren and Professor Siskind also hold appointments at Metro South Health.

The study is published in Lancet Psychiatry.

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