General health poor among seriously mentally ill

As if one debilitating problem weren’t enough, individuals living with serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia or severe mood disorders are also more likely to have other significant health hurdles in their lives.

A recent comparison study of the overall health of people with serious mental illness found levels to be well below those found in the general population. This suggested that general health should be assessed and monitored among those seeking aid for these mental health conditions.

According to this study, funded by the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (US) and published in the July issue of Schizophrenia Bulletin, only one per cent of those with serious mental illness met the criteria for five selected health indicators compared with 10 per cent in the general population.

Health indicators tested included smoking status, exercise, dental health, obesity and co-occurring serious medical illness. These were identified based on a program set up by the Centers of Disease Control and prevention.

Individuals with serious mental illness fared worse in all areas except for exercise where 39 per cent of both groups reported exercise that met recommended standards.

Reasons for worse health among the mentally ill are not certain, but there are likely many factors that come into play.

If a person is psychotic and delusional, it is probably very difficult for him or her to be concerned with other areas of physical health. Poverty can also negatively affect a person’s health and this is very often a real problem for individuals with severe mental illness. Other factors that could be involved include lack of health knowledge or education and increased susceptibility to substance abuse problems for those experiencing mental illness.

The poor cannot afford dental care and, in BC, it is very poorly covered by social services. In some places, such as Kelowna’s Gospel Mission, free dental care is provided by volunteer dentists but many do not know about this service and do not access it.

Poor nutrition is ubiquitous among the poor. If they are on social services, the monthly payments are inadequate to provide a healthy diet. Poor nutrition can lead to all sorts of other problems from poor dentition to cardiovascular problems.

The latter can lead to increased medical costs when problems become severe enough to justify hospitalization. These costs are covered by MSP. This is an example of how more money up front for better food and housing could actually prevent higher costs down the road. Government policy is funding disease treatment but not prevention among the poor.

Not only do physical ailments pose increased risks to those with mental illness – such as premature death or simple ill-health, but general and mental health are often connected and can each impact one another.

If a person with a mental illness is also sick with a co-existing general medical disorder, they tend to do worse than a person dealing with only the medical disorder. Likewise, physical complaints can make mental illness such as depression worse.

All of this suggests that mental health care providers and family caregivers should carefully monitor the general health of their patients as well as the state of their mental illness.

Improving the physical health of any individual can only serve to improve their overall quality of life and should be the goal of any health care provider when treating patients whether they are mentally ill or not.


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