Walk for mental illness promotes physical health

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Suspicions existed long before a 2006 study showed that people with serious mental illness die at younger ages than the general population.

But the size of the life-span gap between those with mental illness and the general population is what really raised the red flags.

"Persons with serious mental illness are now dying 25 years earlier than the general population," a foreword to the study states.

Sixty percent of the premature deaths involved "treatable medical conditions caused by smoking, obesity, substance abuse and inadequate access to medical care," it said.

"Those with serious mental illness are nearly three times more likely to die from diabetes or cardiovascular disease than the general population," said Christine Michaels, executive director of the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, known as NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The third-annual NAMI Walks for the Minds of America 5K, scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Sunday at SouthSide Works, will highlight the connection between mental and physical health.

Participants can register at the event, online at www.namiswpa.org, or by calling 412-366-3788. WTAE-News Anchor Michelle Wright will lead the walk along the Three Rivers Heritage Trail. The event also will feature breakfast refreshments, children's activities and entertainment.

While the event is free, those who raise $100 will receive an event T-shirt. About 2,000 people are scheduled to participate in the walk sponsored by UPMC Insurance Services, among other organizations.

"We want to raise awareness and reduce the stigma of mental illness," Ms. Michaels said. "Mental illness is common and treatable, and recovery is possible."

Dr. Joe Parks, chairman of the Medical Directors Council, who wrote the foreword to the study, said overall health is essential to mental health and recovery includes wellness. "We must all work together to fight this epidemic of premature death and its contributing causes," he said.

The study sparked a movement focused on physical and mental care for patients who have serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, chronic depression and bipolar disorder, among others.

"People focus on the mental illness but don't look at the physical side," said John Lovelace, president of UPMC for You and chief program officer for Community Care. "Compounding this problem, people with serious mental illness have poorer access to established monitoring and treatment guidelines for physical health conditions."

Mr. Lovelace said UPMC For You, the Department of Public Welfare, the Allegheny County Office of Behavioral Health, Community Care Behavioral Health, and the Center for Health Care Strategies, with Mathematica evaluating results, are studying ways to address the problem. Improving health outcomes and providing better access to care for people with mental illness are the goals.

One in five people suffer from schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder or other mental disorders, with one in four families affected, according to NAMI.

While it is a common problem, Ms. Michaels said, the stigma of mental illness prevents people from talking openly about it and seeking treatment.

People with serious mental illness tend to face lifestyle problems adversely affecting their physical health. Many are poor, often resulting in poor diet causing weight gain and elevated cholesterol, which, in turn, can lead to cardiovascular disease and diabetes. "Many live in poverty, and that has a big impact on all health issues," Mr. Lovelace said.

Even with proper medical care, people with mental illness can misunderstand dose levels and medication regimens and fail to heed lifestyle recommendations.

While most people with mental illness do have health-care benefits, they can face problems communicating with doctors, which can lead to embarrassment or feelings of intimidation. "As a group, they are not as proactive in health care," Mr. Lovelace said.

"But the major factor affecting longevity is the high suicide rate among the mentally ill," he said.

Besides documenting the gap in longevity, the October 2006 study, "Morbidity and Mortality in People with Serious Mental Illness," also noted evidence revealing that "the rate of serious morbidity (or illness) and mortality (or death) in this population has accelerated."

The study, conducted by the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors and the Medical Directors Council, also noted that suicide and injuries cause up to 40 percent of excess deaths among the mentally ill, while 60 percent of premature deaths of people with schizophrenia "are due to medical conditions such as cardiovascular, pulmonary and infectious disease."

People with mental illness also face additional risk factors of obesity and tobacco usage that could be modified or eliminated, the study said.


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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