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Transcript for Podcast: An Overview of Physical Health Disparities among People with Mental Illnesses

Hello, my name is Dr. Lisa Razzano and I’m with the UIC National Research and Training Center on Psychiatric Disability. Thank you for joining me on this podcast about health disparities among people with serious mental illnesses. It’s become widely recognized that health disparities often defined as “population-specific differences in the presence of disease, in health outcomes, or in access to health care” - are a leading cause of illness and early death among people with psychiatric disabilities in the U.S. and around the globe. By some estimates, people living with serious mental illnesses may have a 25-year shorter lifespan than those in the general population.

It’s striking that many of the health conditions affecting people with mental illnesses today are largely preventable, either at the individual or societal level. At the personal level, for example, many people are coping with cardiovascular disease that can be prevented or improved through regular exercise. Similarly, common and life threatening respiratory illnesses can be prevented by quitting smoking. At the societal level, we know that many health conditions result from the poverty in which people with mental illnesses often live, leading to limited access to health care services and preventing early detection and proper medical treatment. Moreover, people with mental illnesses often are reluctant to seek care for their medical needs due to the stigma they can encounter in health settings and the triggers often associated with hospitals.

So, what are the primary medical conditions posing health risks to people with mental illnesses? The majority of reports today agree that a leading threat is being overweight or obese, given the connections between high body mass and serious medical conditions like diabetes and hypertension. Other life threatening conditions include heart disease from a lack of exercise and high levels of cholesterol, as well as problems with liver functioning from use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, and infectious diseases.

In the face of such serious consequences, what can people with mental illnesses do to reduce their risks? First, they must take care of their own health as a way to prevent illnesses whenever possible. This includes regularly washing hands throughout the day, eating nutritious foods and exercising, and reducing the use of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs. It’s important for everyone to discuss their physical health with a health care provider and to complete regular screenings for personal health risks. These screenings allow for early detection of health concerns, so that relevant treatment options can be discussed and initiated. Prevention and early detection can also slow the progression of illnesses before they become more serious or life threatening.

Another factor that can promote wellness includes managing any medications used. Regardless of the condition being treated with medication, it’s essential to take prescriptions as directed by a doctor - including taking medications on time and finishing medication regimens such as antibiotics. If a person has trouble taking his/her medication because of side effects or other issues, it’s critical to talk to a health care provider openly about these problems. As well, most physical illnesses can be well-managed using treatments that do not negatively interact with psychiatric medications.

Once detected or diagnosed, it’s helpful for people with mental illnesses to learn as much as possible about their conditions. People’s knowledge and beliefs about their health have a strong effect on their wellness. Beliefs and knowledge affect whether they believe they are even susceptible or at-risk for an illness, the severity of the symptoms they might have, their treatment benefits, and they’re willingness to participate in treatment if needed. Studies consistently show that when people know more about their health and the benefits of health promotion, the better care they take of themselves overall.

There are many excellent resources on the internet about health and reducing illness risks. For example, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 10x10 Campaign promotes a holistic approach to increasing life expectancy among persons with mental health problems by 10 years over the next 10 years. Read more at: Other excellent resources can be found from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as the CDC, at Thank you for joining me.

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