More than 26,000 adults with severe mental illness die prematurely each year from preventable physical illnesses, analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists suggests.
New data from the Office for Health Improvement & Disparities shows 120,273 adults in England with severe mental illness, including psychosis, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia, died before the age of 75 between 2018 and 2020.
Of these, the College estimates 80,182 deaths (two in three) were potentially preventable, which is an average of 26,727 people each year.
Preventable deaths include deaths from diseases like cancer and heart disease which could have been prevented with earlier detection and treatment or lifestyle changes. While adults with severe mental illness are more likely to engage in unhealthy behaviours like smoking and drinking alcohol excessively, they are also less likely to access screening and treatment for a range of reasons including stigma associated with having a mental illness.
While cancer is the leading cause of premature death among those with a severe mental illness, it also significantly increases the risk of dying before the age of 75 across a range of physical health conditions. Adults with severe mental illness are on average:
- 6.6 times more likely to die prematurely from respiratory disease
- 6.5 times more likely to die prematurely from liver disease
- 4.1 times more likely to die prematurely from cardiovascular disease
- 2.3 times more likely to die prematurely from cancer.
Most worryingly, the mortality gap between those living with severe mental illness and the rest of the population is widening. Over a three-year period from 2015 to 2017, these adults were 4.6 times more likely to die before the age of 75 than those without a severe mental illness. This increased to 4.9 times in the following three years from 2018 to 2020.
As of March 2023, there were 535,204 adults with a diagnosed severe mental illness in England.
Marking Mental Health Awareness Week, the Royal College of Psychiatrists urges everyone to look out for those with severe mental illness and ensure they are receiving professional support for both their physical and mental health problems.
The College is also calling on the Government to close the mortality gap and provide full annual health checks to everyone with a severe mental illness, comprising blood pressure, blood glucose and blood lipids tests plus BMI weight, alcohol status and smoking assessments.
The NHS Long Term Plan commits to only 390,000 adults with severe mental illness receiving a full annual physical health check by 2023-24 but the latest figures from NHS England show 313,022 (58%) received a full physical health check in 2022-23.
Anna (not her real name), who is 48 years old and lives in Manchester, said:
“I have severe mental illness and have had a range of physical health problems over the years including unexplained pain. I last had a full annual physical health check five years ago. My mental health and physical care are not joined up. I see one team for my mental health issues and a variety of teams for my physical health care. It’s chaotic and frustrating. It affects both my mental and physical health. Having joined up physical and mental health care is essential and would make a real difference to the lives of people like me.”
Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:
“I know from the people I see that having a severe mental illness can make looking after your physical health much more difficult. As a psychiatrist, I urge everyone who knows someone with severe mental illness to look out for them and ensure they receive professional support for both their physical and mental health problems.
“Having a severe mental illness shouldn’t be an early death sentence. We’re calling on the Government to ensure everyone with severe mental illness receives an annual physical health check and to ensure reducing premature mortality is a major priority in the forthcoming Major Conditions Strategy.
"This commitment should be part of a longer-term ambition to cut premature morality across the UK by one-third by 2030, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal to ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.”
“It is unacceptable that so many lives are being lost too soon because people with a mental illness get inadequate help for their physical health. This shocking inequality in health is getting worse and it’s time for concerted action to close the gap. The Government must take action now by setting a clear target to reduce early deaths among people with a mental illness and enabling health and care services to meet it.”