ON MENTAL ILLNESS: The Shortened Lifespan of Mentally Ill People

Jack Bragen
Friday February 16, 2018 - 06:34:00 PM

According to numerous sources, schizophrenia reduces life expectancy by about twenty years. Heavy smoking reduces life expectancy by about ten years. Put those two together, and it adds up to parents much of the time outliving their mentally ill offspring. And I have seen this happen as I've lived among persons with mental illness. I could name a dozen or more mentally ill acquaintances, and some friends, who met this fate.  

I heard of and had met a man in his thirties who woke up in the middle of the night with what he believed was an upset stomach, drank a bottle of antacid, and then collapsed and died on his back porch. I've known others who have died early from other "natural causes."  

For a mentally ill person, it is an accomplishment to live past sixty.  

Psychiatric medications are hard on the body. They cause a whole gamut of physical illnesses. Some can cause kidney failure, while others can cause weight gain, diabetes, stroke and heart attack. Physicians will not do as much for mentally ill patients who have medical issues. To an overweight patient with medical issues, a doctor said, "Stop and smell the roses." This doctor had essentially given up and had adopted the belief that the patient was going to die. That attitude doesn’t do much for a patient's morale. 

One factor of the shortened lifespan of mentally ill people is the high frequency of suicides. However, even if this is factored out, mentally ill people still do not live nearly a normal lifespan.  

The bitterly irony is this: Many people with schizophrenia go through their youth in a fog of the mind because of this illness. When young, women and men with schizophrenia have a lot of symptoms, and the consequences of this vary. When we reach our fifties and sixties, symptoms subside and this yields better life conditions because we are thinking more clearly making better decisions, and in many other ways, we are doing better. Unfortunately, a large number of people with schizophrenia never make it that far.  

Solutions? Those who experience mental illness need to have a better diet, should exercise, should avoid street drugs, should not drink alcohol, and should not smoke tobacco. Drug companies should put work into finding substances that help treat mental illness that do not harm the body or cause diabetes and/or weight gain.  

Sound simple? It is. Why is it not being done? Because the mental health treatment system in the U.S. does not have an incentive to help mentally ill people live longer, in better health. At treatment venues, high calorie, sugary, fatty salty food is being given to mental health consumers, there is no encouragement to get exercise, and places and times to smoke tobacco are provided.  

Secondly, people with psychiatric disabilities often don't have as much to look forward to in life; and this is fertile ground on which to germinate substance abuse. This is because we are discriminated against in work attempts, and we are routinely underestimated when we express a desire for a career; and instead we are presumed to have "delusions of grandeur."  

When the highlight of one's day is a piece of pizza and a slice of chocolate cake, followed by fruit punch, and then a couple of cigarettes, longevity is out the window. When we are discouraged in our meagre ideas of having a little career, there are not as many reasons to stick around longer. Can this be changed? No, I don't think it will. It is up to we who have a mental illness to think highly enough of ourselves to do more, and to take better care of health. The "system" isn't going to do it for us.