Physical, Mental Illness Very Closely Related
> 3/5/2007 11:44:43 AM

It's long been common knowledge among the psychiatric community that individuals living with mental illness are more susceptible to disease and addiction than the common populace. But this newly released report on increased morbidity among the mentally ill (from the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors) presents staggering numbers: a person diagnosed with serious or severe mental illness has a life expectancy 25 years below that of the average citizen, and the vast majority of these early deaths (up to 60%) can be attributed to treatable and preventable conditions such as heart disease, obesity, risky sexual behaviors and substance abuse.

Mental illness is known to increase a patient's susceptibility to the dangers of addiction: individuals suffering from bipolar disorder, for example, are seven times as likely to drift into alcoholism, and the incidence of tobacco addiction among schizophrenic patients is estimated at 50-80%. In many cases, such substances serve as self-administered medications, and in addition to suffering the detrimental physical symptoms of their overuse, many patients also run a significant risk of inducing further problems due to dangerous counteractions between intoxicants and psychiatric medicines. Researchers have often speculated on abnormal functioning in the brains of patients predisposed to addiction, who look to illicit substances in order to "normalize" themselves in much the same way that they hope to benefit from prescription medicines. This unbalanced state of mind, some believe, is in many cases a direct byproduct of varying mental illnesses. Complimentary difficulties with mental and physical health often feed on one another, as periodic descents into deeper depression or psychosis may result in an increasing dependence on preferred substances which will then only reinforce the prexisting conditions.

Due to a greater prevalance of unemployment, homelessness, and social isolation among their number, the mentally ill are much more likely to neglect their physical health, a tendency reflected by rates of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease that are considerably higher than average. Medications, however, can also contribute to these deficiencies, as newer antipsychotics have been linked to weight gain and irregular metabolic functions. Those who suffer from serious mental illness are also much less likely to seek medical help for potentially debilitating physical conditions.

One of the major factors contributing to this epidemic is a systemic disconnect between primary care physicians and psychiatrists or therapists. In response to the damning report by the NASMHP, experts like Massachusetts state medical director Mary Ellen Foti suggest a nationwide move toward a better organized system of co-location whereby patients suffering from serious mental illnesses can receive physical examinations and treatments on or near the very same premises, making the process much more convenient and facilitating the crucial relationship between the two related practices. In order to better measure and contain the epidemic, they recommend increased tracking of mentally ill patients, maintaining a national health surveillance system specifically for psychiatric patients. They also believe that increased federal funding for concerns like smoking cessation weight reduction among the mentally ill population will ultimately reduce the number and severity of their cases, ultimately making the system more cost-effective. Making these services available to patients suffering from serious mental illness is the first step, and getting them into relevant programs will probably be the greatest challenge in the near future. By making these programs more accessible and educating the public about the challenges and debilitating stigmas faced by these patients, we will, in time, take huge steps toward the epidemic's eventual resolution.

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