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Mental Illness: Just as Bad as Cigarettes?


The things that kill us most—heart disease, cancer, stroke, and lung disease—get a lot of ink. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that these four conditions (plus unintentional injuries) cause almost two-thirds of the deaths in this country. But according to a new study released today, there's a much quieter—yet arguably just as deadly—killer: mental illness.

Oxford researchers found that serious mental health conditions (bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol abuse, depression) cut life expectany by between 10 and 20 years—a drop equal to (or worse than) a habit of heavy smoking. [Tweet this news!] Think about it this way: Both 20-plus cigarettes a day and many mental illnesses yield similar drops in life expectancy. Of course, different conditions have different effects on how long you'll live: Bipolar disorder can cut your life between nine and 20 years, drug and alcohol abuse between nine and 24 years, and depression around 7 to 11 years, the researchers note.

But here's the thing: The amount of people who suffer from mental illnesess is about the same amount of people who smoke (one in four and about 19 percent, respectively). So why does lung cancer hog most of the stage? 

"Smoking has been the subject of many years of visible campaigning highlighting the impact that it has on health. The pioneering population studies carried out in the U.K. that linked smoking to lung cancer laid the foundation stone for very effective media and government campaigns with a simple message: Stop and your health will benefit," explains John Williams, Ph.D., head of neuroscience and mental health at the Wellcome Trust, which funded the study. Mental health, on the other hand, has taken a back seat. There's a stigma surrounding mental health, study author Seena Fazel, M.D., said in a press release. And many people may not realize that with mental problems come physical ones too.

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That helps explains the staggering statistics: People with mental illnesses may not be treated as well for physical health problems when they see a doctor, Fazel also said in the release. People suffering from psychiatritc conditions are also more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors, "especially drug and alcohol abuse, and they are more likely to die by suicide," he said. 

What you need to do: Speak up—if you think you're suffering or if a friend or family member is. As Williams puts it, "For many mental heath issues, we do have good interventions that can help people lead healthy and engaged lives. People need to be open about their condition with their loved ones, and seek support from the many good networks that exist out there for just that purpose." 


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