Rethink: Over 30,000 people with mental health problems dying needlessly

The charity Rethink Mental Illness has published figures today which reveal that over a third of the 100,000 ‘avoidable deaths’ (1) in England every year, are people with mental health problems.

These figures do not include suicide, but are due to the fact that people with mental health problems are more likely to die from preventable physical illnesses than the rest of the population. 

The statistics are part of a report published by the charity today, which is being backed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists. ‘Lethal Discrimination’ calls on the Government to take action to reduce the number of people with mental health problems who are dying unnecessarily, and outlines simple changes that could save thousands of lives.

There are a number of factors which put people with severe mental illness at an increased risk of illness. They include the side-effects of medication, high rates of smoking, a lack of basic physical health checks from the NHS and professionals not taking the concerns of people with mental illness seriously.

The Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent ‘call to action’ on addressing premature mortality (2) barely touches on the physical health of people with mental illness, and recent audits show the NHS is failing to take this issue seriously. According to Rethink Mental Illness, this represents a huge blind spot in government policy.

The charity is calling on Jeremy Hunt to ensure that the premature mortality strategy, which is due to be published in the Autumn, makes explicit commitments to tackling this issue.

Paul Jenkins, CEO of Rethink Mental Illness said:

“If Jeremy Hunt is serious about wanting to reduce the number of people dying needlessly every year, he can’t afford to ignore people with mental illness. We know this group is at a much higher risk of early death. We also know that there are simple solutions like targeted support to give up smoking and regular physical health checks, which could save thousands of lives.

“While there are some pockets of good practice in the system, most people with mental illness are being badly let down when it comes to their physical health. This means tens of thousands of people are dying needlessly every year and many more are left struggling with long term conditions such as diabetes.

“By not acting, the government is allowing some of the most vulnerable people in our society to be treated as second class citizens. We know what the solutions are and they are not complex or expensive. All we need now is the political will to make change happen.”

Key findings:

1 in 3 of the 100,000 ‘avoidable deaths’ every year are people with mental health problems.

Over 40% of all cigarettes are smoked by people with mental illness, but they are less likely to be given support to quit.

Less than 30% of people with severe mental illness are getting a basic annual physical health check.

People gain an average of 13lbs in the first two months of taking antipsychotics and this continues over the first year. Despite this, in some areas, 70% of people in this group are not having their weight monitored.

Some health professionals are failing to take people with mental illness seriously when they raise concerns about their physical health.

Key recommendations:

People with mental illness should be offered tailored support to quit smoking, and smoking cessation teams should proactively be supporting this group.

Patients should be told about the side-effects of antipsychotic medication so they can look out for warning signs and GPs should monitor them closely.

All mental health professionals should receive basic physical health training as part of their mandatory training.

It should be made clear who is responsible for the physical health of people with mental health problems, as currently it falls between primary and secondary care.

Professor Sue Bailey, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, wrote the foreword for report and is backing its calls. She says: “The fact that people with serious mental illness die an average of 20 years earlier than the rest of the population is one of the biggest health scandals of our time, but it is being ignored.

“If this statistic applied to any other group of people, such as residents of a particular town, there would be public outcry. Questions would be asked about why these people are being so badly let down by health services and politicians would call for targeted support. But this simply isn’t happening for people with mental illness.

“Failure to address this issue amounts to a form of lethal discrimination which is costing lives.” 

Tracey Butler, 39, from Hampshire, has schizoaffective disorder and borderline personality disorder and was first prescribed antipsychotics in her early twenties. 

She says: “I gained weight quickly after I started taking antipsychotics. I also started feeling thirsty all the time and tired so I went to my GP but he dismissed my concerns.  About a year passed and the symptoms continued to get worse, before I was finally diagnosed with diabetes.

“When I’m unwell, I’m not great at looking after myself. It can be quite a big undertaking to go to see my GP, and I really do need them to take me seriously. As soon as a medical professional looks at my records, they see ‘borderline personality disorder’ flashing up on the screen and it feels like they stop listening to me. They just think I’m neurotic or paranoid.

“There also doesn’t seem to be any communication between my GP and my psychiatrist. I think it would make a big difference if there was.”

ENDS

For more information, please contact Rachel Hobbs, Media Manager for Rethink Mental Illness on 0207 840 3138 or email rachel.hobbs@rethink.org

**Case studies and spokespeople available for interview**

1. ‘Avoidable deaths’ means deaths which could have been prevented either through public health interventions such as encouraging people to do more exercise or through effective medical treatment. The government estimates that around 2/3 of the 150,000 deaths of people under 75 each year, are avoidable.

2. Living Well for Longer: a Call to Action to Reduce Avoidable Premature Mortality

Notes to editors

Rethink Mental Illness is a charity that believes a better life is possible for millions of people affected by mental illness.

For 40 years we have brought people together to support each other. We run services and support groups that change people’s lives and challenge attitudes about mental illness.

We directly support almost 60,000 people every year across England to get through crises, to live independently and to realise they are not alone.

We give information and advice to 500,000 more and we change policy for millions.

For more information go to www.rethink.org