Comorbidity, Life Expectancy, & Suicide
Life expectancy is shortened by approximately 25 years in those with mental illness. This diminished life expectancy can be attributed to two factors: 1) Comorbid states; 2) Increased risk for suicide.
Comorbidity, or the occurrence of at least one other health-related issue along with the primary problem, is often found with mental health illness and problems. Substance use disorders develop in the presence of any number of mental, emotional, and relationship problems as a means of coping or self-medication. Alternatively, anxiety and mood disorders often develop in those with substance abuse disorders.
Our overall health is intimately linked to our mental health. More specifically, good mental health is associated with good physical health, while poor physical health co-occurs with poor mental health. It is not uncommon, especially with more serious mental illness, to see the presence of largely preventable physical conditions e.g. sexually transmitted disease, cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and diabetes which result in lowered life expectancy.
Suicide, which has increased as much as 65% in the last few decades, is the third leading cause of death for 15-44 year olds and the second leading cause for 10-24 year olds. (WHO) In the United States, 33,300 people committed suicide in 2006. (NIMH) The 2013 National Vital Statistics Report ranked suicide as the 10th leading cause of death in 2010. Of those taking their own lives, 90% have a diagnosable mental illness. (NIMH)
Aside from providing prevalence and incidence rates of a disease or disorder, epidemiological research also can reveal the potential risk factors for a disorder or disease. Although by no means showing a causal link between the condition under investigation and the risk factors, by showing what variables or characteristics correlate with the condition, we can gain some valuable insight into what other factors need to be addressed when trying to attempt a solution or, in the case of mental health, achieving recovery and wellness.
The risk factors for specific mental health issues are varied and beyond the scope of this paper. The focus here are risk factors that interfere, or will interfere, with mental health and wellness.
Many adult mental health issues can be traced back to childhood and adolescence. The data indicates that untreated mental health problems during childhood will likely result in greater risk of experiencing mental health problems during adolescence. Likewise, untreated issues during adolescence increases the likelihood of experiencing mental health problems during adulthood. Furthermore, people’s emotional responses and their ability to form positive relationships is largely influenced by their parents, while it is often found those in abusive relationships, either the perpetrator, victim, or both, were raised in homes where abuse was common.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), conducted by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, has had some startling but, in hindsight, very expected findings. An adverse childhood experience, or ACE, can take the shape of abuse, neglect or extremely dysfunctional family dynamics during those early formative years. The more ACEs in a person’s life, the greater the likelihood that person will develop cognitive/emotional problems, health problems, and unhealthy behaviors that lead to social problems and early death. The toll that these childhood events can take upon an individual is life-long.
As noted earlier, there are high comorbidity rates between mental health problems and illnesses and physical ailments, which typically results in shorter life expectancies. To large part, these physical health issues are due to fact that mental health problems and illnesses, if untreated and provided little support, can lead to victimization, incarceration, homelessness, social isolation, unemployment, and poverty. These are all circumstances that can result in decreased physical health and can exacerbate existing mental health issues, because of the unhealthy behaviors that are associated with these conditions. For example, one is more likely to see behaviors like unsafe sexual practices, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, obesity, smoking, problematic alcohol and other drug use (substance use disorders are commonly seen with other mental health problems and illnesses.
Stay connected with our upcoming blog to learn about the critical role of financial resources, stigmatization and availability of competent mental health care providers.