Health of mentally ill must be a priority

The physical needs of the mentally ill are being overshadowed by their mental health condition, and with fatal consequences.


That’s the warning of the Chairman of the National Mental Health Commission Professor Allan Fels, who says Australians with a serious mental illness live between 14-23 years less than the general population.

In a speech to the National Press Club on Tuesday, Professor Fels listed the “distressing” and “shocking” health outcomes of Australians living with mental illness.

“Among many other disparities, people with a mental illness are six times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease and four times more likely to die from respiratory disease. This must not continue,” Professor Fels said.

These vulnerable people are not dying early because of suicide but from preventable diseases, said the former boss of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

“Four out of every five people living with a mental illness have a co-existing physical illness.”

Prof Fels laid the blame for the poor health outcomes on poor access to services, affordability and stigma.

“Stigma and discrimination which is still widespread, particularly towards those with serious mental illness, can also discourage an individual from seeking help,” he said.

“And health professionals still all too regularly demonstrate stigma and discrimination against those with mental illness – by ignoring them or by dismissing or diminishing the symptoms they report, by not investigating as frequently or by not treating as assertively as they otherwise might if the person did not have a mental illness.”

Professor Fels says it’s an “unacceptable” but “fixable” situation.

As part of a push to close the life expectancy gap, Professor Fels called for the physical health of those with a mental illness to be made a national priority and used his Press Club address to launch the Equally Well Statement.

“Equitable access to health care is a basic human right for all Australians. We need to improve outcomes for people who live with a mental illness and reduce the life expectancy gap,” he said.

One of the core reforms the statement calls for – which has the support of more than 50 organisations and governments – is for person-centred care rather than provider-centred care.

“Better screening, early treatment and management of co-existing physical health conditions, will help people with a mental illness, and the costs to the national health system will be reduced,” Prof Fels said.