I discovered an interesting comment thread the other day, and by interesting I mean deeply concerning. It was saying that individuals with a history of mental illness have significantly decreased life expectancy, in some cases by as much as 30 years. At first, I thought the rate of suicide within the mentally ill population explained this, but oh how wrong I was. It turns out mental illness increases your risk for numerous things, which in turn increases your risk for …
To be more specific, having a severe mental illness increases your risk of numerous nutritional and metabolic diseases, cardiovascular diseases, viral diseases, respiratory tract diseases, musculoskeletal diseases, sexual dysfunction, pregnancy complications, stomatognathic diseases, and possibly obesity-related cancers. To be even more specific a 2011 study examined schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depressive disorder and found, among other things, that the mortality difference between this group and non-mentally ill individuals was between 13 and 30 percent. The study then went on to examine various health risks and the risk factors contributing to that risk. Here are some examples:
- Obesity-related disorders – an unfortunate side effect of many mental health medications is weight gain. Just as a side note this seems to be a particularly cruel side effect for anyone who struggles with social anxiety and already thinks people are judging you. I feel like with my medication regular exercise simply maintains my weight instead of decreasing it, which is incredibly frustrating, but now I’ve gotten off-topic. What I was trying to say before being so rudely interrupted by my unwanted weight, is that because weight gain is a trouble for many mental health medications, specifically antipsychotic medications, that the weight gain, combined with certain lifestyle choices common in mentally ill populations, makes this a real concern.
- High Blood Pressure / Heart Disease / Stroke – It is probably very inaccurate medically speaking to lump these conditions altogether, but I don’t have all day and I’m guessing neither do you. Long story short, mental health disorders can cause people to have higher blood pressure. This was/is true for me, even when I was doing everything I should be doing to have healthy blood pressure. My theory is that mental illness so often triggers the fight or flight center of the brain that it is constantly keeping the blood pumping a lot harder than it needs to, which is understandably dangerous and can lead to all of the conditions listed above.
- Cancer – this is a scary word. We’ve all been impacted one way or another by cancer I suspect, so it is scary that a lot of the factors that go into mental illness are also risk factors for a variety of cancers, which is one of the reasons it too is higher among those battling mental illness.
Another problem faced by individuals with mental illness is disparities in the quality of health care received. The way the world views mental illness generally and severe mental illness specifically has gotten better, but not too long ago those populations were pushed to the fringes of society where health care isn’t so good. While it has, as I mentioned above, gotten better, there is still a long way to go.
So, now that I’ve ratcheted up at least my own anxiety and self-diagnosed myself and
everyone else for being at risk for just about everything, it is time to look at the upside. Everything about mental illness is a battle and this is no different.
First of all, knowledge really is power. Knowing these risks allows each of us who battles with the darkness to be better educated. Second, we must use this power. We must be our own advocates. Doctors see what they know, and if they don’t know mental illness, you need to educate them or find someone who does.
Battling the darkness of mental illness is hard. I know, I face that battle so often. And I am exhausted. And I know too that many of us don’t want to have the additional battle of advocating for oneself with a doctor. But it is so important because once you do, all the other battles get easier.
Yes, mental illness creates numerous secondary health risks and yes that is scary. Mental illness can be scary at times. Even when it isn’t the sterile statistics of science telling you that your mental illness probably is actually trying to kill you, it is dark abstract fears waiting for you in the shadows. Yet like with so many other things, being mindful of this is necessary in order to adjust one’s lifestyle, adjust one’s medical care and send those risk factors and your mental illness packing, at least for a little bit.
Because ultimately statistics mean nothing to the individual. You still have the power to shape your life, don’t let the mental illness take that power away. It is hard, and we will fail at times. But as long as we keep putting one foot in front of the other there is nothing to fear from the darkness and nothing to fear from the medical complications that may or may not ever materialize. Be present, be healthy, and until next time, be well.