Mental Illness Reduces Life Expectancy More Than Heavy Smoking

This striking finding comes from a study by an Oxford research team. It reveals that major mental illness reduces life expectancy by 7-24 years. Compare this to the reduction from heavy smoking of 8-10 years.

The impact mental illness has may not surprise psychotherapists. Yet, it is rare to have such figures quantified. Doing so means there’s now a way, as with  major physical illnesses, of counting both the human and the economic costs involved.

Writing in the journal World Psychiatry, the team of Chesney, Goodwin and Fazel document the impact of different mental conditions on life expectancy. They show these vary according to the type of illness or disorder involved.

Bipolar disorder reduces life by 9-20 years and schizophrenia by 10-20 years. Those with drug and alcohol abuse face a reduction of 9-24 years. Even recurrent depression shortens life, on average, by 7-11 years. On this comparison, heavy smoking is at the lower end of the life reduction scale.

Dr. Seena Fazel, of the Oxford University study team, notes there are many reasons for these high figures. “High-risk behaviours are common in psychiatric patients, especially drug and alcohol abuse, and they are more likely to die by suicide. The stigma surrounding mental health may mean people aren’t treated as well for physical health problems when they do see a doctor.”

Shortened life expectancy carries heavy economic burdens for society. For example, smoking cost over 1% of Europe’s GDP in 2000, and alcohol abuse between 1-10% of GDP.

Mental illness is likely to contribute a similar burden. This is because, like smoking, it carries heavy medical, institutional, legal and other costs.

These are new and powerful reasons to fund mental health care adequately. It reduces the enormous human and financial toll involved.

Chesney E, Goodwin GM, Fazel S (2014) Risks of all-cause and suicide mortality in mental disorders: a meta-review World Psychiatry 13, 153-160
The cost of tobacco use
Tamar Kahn ‘Burden of alcohol abuse to economy estimated to be as high as 10% of GDP’ Business Day, 13 February 2014