Recently I have started a new job. I am feeling useful and productive and the structure to my days has left my mental health a lot more stable and positive than it has been in a good while. It is only now I am feeling better that I can truly consider the question that crept into my mind yesterday – What if my mental illness leads to my death?
Mental Health Research UK say that mental illness lowers life expectancy by an average of 20 years. This is the same effect as smoking and more of an effect than obesity. Even if I live to an age where I die of natural causes, a life struggling with poor mental health could lead to an early death. I have developed many physical symptoms from the stress of being ill from joint and muscle pain to stomach problems. I take medication that in the long term could have a detrimental effect on my vital organs and cause physical illnesses such as diabetes.
However the obvious reason that mental illness can be life threatening is suicide. Over 6,000 people die from suicide in the UK every year and our medical services are strained and no where near equipped to deal with the amount of people having suicidal thoughts. This year I have come to terms with my own mortality. It is true that no one knows when they are going to die, but as someone who has quite intense suicidal thoughts and intent for extended periods of time, I know that my life is in danger on a regular basis. I celebrate getting to each birthday as a genuine achievement. I make the most of time spent with friends and family I do not see on a regular basis as I know it would be naïve to assume that I will definitely be seeing them again.
Another danger is mental illnesses that include symptoms such as mania. This can cause the sufferer to feel invulnerable and therefore potentially put themselves in harms way. Conditions with psychosis can cause visual and auditory hallucinations that can affect people’s grasp on reality and therefore cause them to do something dangerous to themselves.
I do feel that the life threatening nature of mental illness is something that as a society we are not aware of and do not discuss enough. Partly this might be because there is no solidity to it. If someone has a cancer diagnosis for example they could be given a percentage chance of survival. This gives weight and gravitas to the danger it presents. With mental health there is no such luxury. No professional can tell me the likelihood of my condition leading to my death. They still haven’t quite decided what my condition is.
In my recent induction to my new job I was given a talk on end of life care. How we should all make decisions now about how we wanted to be treated if we are dying and what we want to happen after we are dead. We were all tasked with going away and watching The Bucket List. This seems really sensible to me. As I said, I have come to terms with the fragility of my own life. One of the things I really want to do is raise awareness of the life threatening nature of mental illness. Until we do this suicide will remain the biggest killer of men under 50 and people with mental health problems will continue to die young.
It is something we need to talk about.