A 20 year study conducted by the University of Queensland (UQ) and University of Western Australia (UWA) has identified an alarming gap in life expectancy between those with a mental illness and the broader community.

The research concluded that mentally ill people are dying an average of 16 years earlier than the general population, with cardiovascular diseases and cancer the leading cause of death, rather than from suicide or accidents.

Suicide was the cause of only about 14 per cent of the early deaths,” said researcher Dr Steve Kisely from UQ’s School of Population Health and School of Medicine.

The study was based on data gathered over 20 years from almost 300,000 people who were registered with mental health services in Western Australia and diagnosed with conditions including alcohol and drug disorders, schizophrenia, affective and other psychoses, neurotic disorders, stress or adjustment reaction, depressive disorders and other mental conditions. 

The researchers found the overall life expectancy gap between the study group and others in the rest of the population was 15.9 years for men and 12 years for women. 

The research found that the gap had widened by two years over the 1985 to 2005 period.

“Patients with alcohol or drug orders had the lowest life expectancy: they die up to 20 years earlier than the general population,” Dr Kisely said. 

The life expectancy gap for mentally ill people was worse than that of smokers in the general population and similar to the gap experienced by Indigenous Australians. 

“The inequities in Indigenous Australians' health experiences have justifiably attracted substantial public investment, but we have seen little attention focused on the mortality rates of people with mental illness and few interventions designed to address this,” he said. 

He said mentally ill people often were in poor health and this was a factor in why they died younger. 

“People with mental illness have been found to have higher rates of substance use as well as unhealthy lifestyles, including poorer diets and less exercise,” Dr Kisely said. 

“The side-effects of some drugs may be a factor, as well as inequalities in access to healthcare.”