A study by Oxford University psychiatrists has demonstrated that some mental illnesses can reduce life expectancy more than heavy smoking. Researchers have found that serious mental illnesses reduce life expectancy by 10 to 20 years. This is approximately greater, or equal to, the number of years of life lost if a person is a heavy smoker.

The psychiatrists who conducted the study say that it demonstrates that mental health should be considered a public health priority.

It is estimated that one in four people in the UK experience some kind of mental health problem during the course of a year. In comparison, around 21% of British men and 19% women smoke cigarettes.

The study, published in the journal of World Psychiatry was conducted by reviewing the most systematic clinical studies on the mortality risk for a range of mental illnesses. Twenty review papers, with information about over 1.7 million individuals and over 250,000 deaths were used. Each illness studied showed an increased mortality risk, although the extent of this rise varied greatly. It was found that the average reduction in life expectancy in people with bipolar disorder is between nine and 20 years, while it is 10 to 20 years for schizophrenia, between nine and 24 years for drug and alcohol abuse, and around seven to 11 years for recurrent depression.

Dr Seena Fazel of the Department of Psychiatry at Oxford University commented, “Many causes of mental health problems also have physical consequences, and mental illness worsens the prognosis of a range of physical illnesses, especially heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Unfortunately, people with serious mental illnesses may not access healthcare effectively.”

Fazel believes that the reduction in life expectancy associated with mental illnesses can be reduced. “All of this can be changed. There are effective drug and psychological treatments for mental health problems.”

Tom Posa, a first year at Balliol said, “This study just confirms something everyone involved in college welfare already knows: that mental health issues can pose a massive threat to those they affect.”