On Mental Illness: Cigarettes, Coffee and Metabolic Syndrome

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday September 27, 2011 - 11:01:00 AM

There is a statistic that says the lifespan of persons with severe mental illness is twenty to thirty years less than average. Being a person with mental illness carries with it a number of severe health risks. Additionally, we are less likely to receive lifesaving medical treatments. Physicians may not be as aggressive about treating our health problems. 

The additional health problems we face, to begin with, stem from the medications we must take. Most psychiatric medications cause weight gain, whether they are mood stabilizers, antidepressants, or antipsychotic medications. Numerous medications cause Type II Diabetes. These include especially Risperdal and Zyprexa, two medications which are the mainstay of many doctors’ antipsychotic inventory. 

A close relative gained over a hundred pounds when put on medications, and eventually became diabetic. 

It is ironic and unfortunate that persons with mental illness, by doing what we are supposed to be doing, which is taking our medication, are in the process endangering our long-term physical health. It is something we have very little choice about, since the alternative to taking the medications that cause health problems is to be noncompliant and suffer an acute relapse of mental illness as a result. People with mental illness make huge sacrifices in the name of recovery as well as in the name of being a good sport. 

Smoking and lack of exercise are two more ways that persons with mental illness are endangered. Unfortunately, the medication makes it a lot harder for us to move our bodies, whether this is for exercise or for physical work. People may see us sitting around a lot: this is because many of the medications make it very hard to move. 

Smoking is significantly harder to quit for a person with mental illness compared to a non afflicted person. Frequently tobacco has a therapeutic effect for some mental illnesses. This has been proven by scientific research. Quitting smoking can be extremely uncomfortable and can be destabilizing for some persons with mental illness. Those who have quit smoking know that this is no easy feat. Putting the mental illness on the plate at the same time as quitting smoking can make it out of some people’s reach. (The author of this column went cold turkey for a week and went back to it after watching someone smoking an electronic cigarette.) 

Persons with mental illness may find it harder to give up the comfort of food. This is partly because many medications increase appetite as wall as blocking the sensation of being full. This is also true because lack of food is often a trigger for becoming unstable. 

Many physicians are not as aggressive at treating the ailments of those with mental illnesses. Persons with mental illness are less likely to receive a lifesaving coronary bypass. Physicians instead may try to be reassuring toward us. Our lives may not appear as valuable to a doctor compared to those who are earning a six-figure or more salary. Persons with mental illness must give up a lot of things that most people would not consider relinquishing. We must often give up on a long lifespan, on owning a house, often on having a rewarding career, and we must give up on being a slim and trim member of the “jet set.” We ought to be respected for these sacrifices and ought not to be condescended upon for it.