Seeking better health for mental illness

Jul 7 2010

As Liz Knock writes in today’s Newcastle Herald, a new study is working on changing lifestyles….

Previous research has shown that the life expectancy for people with schizophrenia is approximately 20 years less than the general population. The mortality rate due to coronary heart disease among people with schizophrenia is around twice that seen in the general population. Not surprisingly, we also see that schizophrenia sufferers have much higher rates of coronary heart disease risk factors than the general population. These include factors such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, smoking, and less use of medical care than people without schizophrenia.

There is some understanding of the link between the antipsychotic medication typically used by these patients, and coronary heart disease risk factors such as weight gain.  While our knowledge of this is limited, we do know that those suffering from severe mental disorders are a population with a very high prevalence of high fat, low fibre diets, lack of exercise and high smoking rates. It would seem then that this pattern of unhealthy behaviours is likely to be the main contributor to coronary heart disease risk among people with psychotic disorders, regardless of medication and other factors.

This suggests that psychological intervention is a significant option for treatment of these behavioural and environment factors and gives some hope that change is possible.  However, the focus has been on addressing more complex and pressing psychiatric problems in patients rather than using lifestyle psychological interventions, despite the enormous impact these factors have on health, wellbeing, long term mortality and treatment compliance.

Researchers at the University of Newcastle are now looking at the possible feasibility and effectiveness of psychological treatment of some of these risk factors, and as the first study of its kind, the Healthy Lifestyles project has been developed to address overall health in people with psychosis, looking at physical activity, healthy food choices and smoking. Participants in the therapy group will be provided with regular psychological support to reduce or quit smoking, and make other lifestyle changes around their diet and exercise, over nine months. All participants are also given nicotine replacement therapy.

Chief investigators, Professor Amanda Baker and Dr Frances Kay-Lambkin, hope to gain a better understanding of the feasibility of reducing coronary heart disease risk and stopping people with psychosis from smoking, as well as further knowledge around how best to provide this type of intervention.
To be a part of the project, participants should have a diagnosis of a psychotic or bipolar disorder, and be smoking at least 15 cigarettes per day. The project is operating out of Newcastle, Sydney andMelbourne, with the Newcastle site also servicing Central Coast and Maitland areas.  Participants be accepted until December 2010.

This project is funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council grant to the University ofNewcastle.  Professor Baker and Dr Kay-Lambkin research in collaboration with the Hunter Medical Research Institute’s Brain and Mental Health Research Program.

For more information on the Healthy Lifestyles project in the Newcastle area, please contact Liz Knock or Jaci Richards on 0488 530 990 or (02) 4033 5717.

Liz Knock is an intern clinical psycologist at the Calvery Mater Hospital.