18th November 2015

Mental health can lower life expectancy no matter what your background…

People with mental health problems die twenty years earlier than those without. This is a shocking fact, but one well known within the mental health world. This impact on life expectancy is equivalent to or worse than, heavy smoking.

Research today by the Open Public Services Network provides a stark assessment of the areas of the country where those with mental health problems are more likely to die early. This includes areas of high deprivation, but also areas of relative affluence. For example, Bath, Wokingham and the London Borough of Kingston stand out as having a particularly large gap in premature mortality between people with mental health problems and those without. This shows that mental health can have a serious impact on premature mortality in spite of someone’s background and economic position. Nevertheless, just as with physical health problems, those living in deprived areas are more likely to have higher rates of mental health problems. Recent research by the Centre for Mental Health and UCL’s Institute for Education has found that children from poorer backgrounds are four times more likely than those with the highest incomes to have mental health problems.

The evidence is clear. But the public health world has not yet woken up to this fact. National efforts on reducing premature mortality are too broad-brush and not always focused on those groups in our society where intervention could make the most difference. The same is true at a local level, as evidenced by the recent report by Mind which found that local authorities in England spend an average of 1p in every pound of their public health budget on mental health.

If we really want to be a world leader on health, with high life expectancy and low premature mortality then we need to focus on tackling health inequalities. This is not a new issue. We have had report after report since the famous Black report in 1980. Nevertheless, the link between physical and mental health in this area has not been well understood and it is clear we still have a long way to go before this policy debate turns into real action on the ground. Hopefully the detailed research published today will provide renewed impetus for change.