People with mental illnesses and intellectual disabilities are dying earlier as a result of a failure to address their needs by the NHS, the doctors’ union has warned.
Urgent action is needed to ensure equal value is placed on both patients’ mental and physical health in the face of “distressing” evidence about the life expectancy of the mentally ill and people with learning disabilities, a report by the BMA board of science has said.
The physical health problems of patients with a mental illness or intellectual disability are “all too often” under-addressed, the report said, while the mental health of patients with a physical illness is frequently neglected.
Cuts to funding - which have seen 1,711 mental health beds closed since April 2011, while therapy sessions for those with a mental illness are limited to just 20 on the NHS - have compounded the disparity, the report said.
Intellectual disability, mental health and physical health care should be better integrated within the health service with the creation of a liaison physician in psychiatric wards to support the physical health needs of patients, the report said.
There should also be improved training for trainees and doctors in how to deal with both people with mental illness and people with an intellectual disability, it recommended.
The call has been led by Baroness Sheila Hollins, chairman of the BMA board of science and a former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
She said it was “distressing” that a patient with a mental health condition would typically die between 15 and 20 years earlier than someone without.
“It is deeply concerning that mental health in the UK is not universally held in the same regard as patients’ physical health, nor does it receive comparable levels of funding,” she said.
“There would be an outcry if patients with a physical illness were denied treatment or care due to cuts in funding, yet this is what we are seeing for those patients suffering from mental illness.
“A person suffering from a severe mental illness, or who has an intellectual disability, is much more likely to have a physical health problem, and worryingly is more likely to die of that illness within five years.
“Despite this evidence, their physical health continues to be under-addressed, while the mental health of those with a physical problem is all too often neglected.
“In order to address this problem it is vital that we stop emphasising one or the other, and ensure that equal value is placed on both mental and physical health, particularly for the most vulnerable members of society.”
Care Minister Norman Lamb, writing in a foreword to the report, said there was “compelling evidence” that people with a mental illness or a learning disability die earlier than the general population.
“This says something, of course, not only about the services available to support these problems, but also how we, as a society, treat people with a mental illness or a learning disability. This must change,” he said.
He added: “We have a long way to go but change must be effected at scale and pace.
“There can be no more excuses or procrastination from any part of the system if we are to achieve our collective goal of a society where everyone is valued and has the chance to lead productive and, most importantly, healthy lives.”