Our statement on the growing mortality gap faced by people severely affected by mental illness

17 May 2023

We respond to new analysis from the Royal College of Psychiatrists that suggests more than 26,000 adults with severe mental illness die prematurely each year from preventable physical illnesses.

Jeremy Bernhaut, Head of Policy and Influencing at Rethink Mental Illness, said:

“It’s simply unacceptable that the mortality gap faced by people living with mental illness is growing when the risks to their physical health are well-known. These statistics represent thousands of people severely affected by mental illness who will have been in contact with health services throughout their lives, without receiving the right support to prevent the development of physical illnesses which both diminish their quality of life and reduce their life expectancy. While these facts have the potential to frighten, we must remember that such premature deaths should not be accepted as inevitable; they can be prevented if the right steps are taken.

“Physical health checks are routine appointments that can save lives. The NHS has made important progress towards reaching its target of 60 percent of people experiencing severe mental illness receiving an annual physical health check, but these statistics spell out why more must urgently be done.

“Given the pressures across the healthcare system, it’s worth underlining the important role the voluntary sector can play to support the uptake of physical health checks. These services must not be carbon copies of the support on offer to the general population; they should be tailored for and designed alongside people with lived experience. Training that has been co-produced helps mental health professionals walk in the shoes of those they support, improving communication so that people feel reassured about what to expect from a check and are offered peer support or practical help with attending appointments. People living with severe mental illness also tell us it's important that these services understand the psychological reasons - such as lethargy, low mood and severe anxiety - behind certain habits like smoking.

“Physical health checks are only the first step. There must be access to follow-up support, such as smoking cessation, weight management services and support with physical activity. Alongside appropriate services to support physical health, we can't ignore how wider deprivation affects people’s life expectancy. The government must set out how it will work across departments to tackle the drivers of mental illness, such as poor housing, unstable work and financial issues.”