A common statistic quoted by almost every expert is that people with mental illness will die, on average, 25 years younger than someone without mental illness. Some mental health advocates even misquote the study completely and say, “People with mental illness die 25 years sooner,” leaving out “on average.”
When I first heard this, as a person living with bipolar and anxiety disorders, I felt helpless. The average lifespan for a male in the United States is 76 years. The thought of dying at 51 bummed me out – a lot.
As I continued to hear this statistic quoted everywhere, people starting offering their inferences as to why we people were dying. One group blamed psychiatric medications, another group said it was because people with mental illness don’t take medications, and another group blamed psychiatric hospitals and medical malpractice. None of these groups offered anything that should pass as evidence.
This made me curious, and so I investigated this commonly-held belief, myself.
People with Mental Illness Don’t Die 25 Years Younger
First, it’s important to point out that the 25-year statement is technically mostly true. Although, I could argue that it’s false because the majority of the studies quote a range from 10 to 25 years, not just 25 years. Aside from that, however, the way people are using this statistic is incredibly misleading and is causing a lot of confusion.
To begin with, the original study is stating averages. It does not state that a person with mental illness typically or usually dies 25-years younger. The devil is very much in the details, here.
Consider this: according to the Center for Orthotic & Prosthetic Care, approximately one in 250 people in the United States is missing a leg. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that all of these people represent the loss of an entire leg. (I do realize this isn’t true, but bear with me.) That means that, in America, the average number of legs per person is approximately 1.95.
Now, imagine you don’t live in America. You live in Japan and you read an article stating that statistic about American legs. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect to come to the United States and see a bunch of people with 1 full leg, and one leg with a piece missing?
It’s unreasonable to believe that everyone with mental illness will die 25 years younger – just as it’s unreasonable to believe that everyone in America is missing part of a leg.
However, far more importantly than the misunderstanding of how averages work, these studies also list a specific set of comorbidities. In other words, what reduces a person’s lifespan isn’t necessarily mental illness by itself. It’s mental illness combined with something else. For example, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, drug use, or homelessness. All of these things are considered common comorbidities for people with mental illness.
Researchers have concluded that a person with mental illness is taking part in these life-shortening activities because they are mentally ill, therefore dying from one of them and dying because of mental illness become intertwined. One other factor that must be taken into account is that some mentally ill individuals will become victims of suicide. While most people with mental illness will not die by suicide, the ones who do lower the average life expectancy for everyone else diagnosed.
If You Have Mental Illness, You Can Live a Normal Lifespan
After I read all the studies myself, I felt much better. The way these studies are being presented to people makes it sounds as though people with mental illness will die 25 years younger. It’s incredibly dangerous to present information so wildly out of context and leave people living with mental illness believing there is nothing they can do to change their fate.
It’s important to note that researchers aren’t the ones misleading the public. Their research methodology is very clearly stated, continually updated, and, when applied in the appropriate context, is very relevant in determining public policy and treatment options. To sum up, if you are diagnosed with mental illness and you take care of yourself physically, don’t abuse drugs and alcohol, have a stable living environment, and are receiving proper treatment for your illness, your odds of living a normal lifespan become comparable to everyone else’s.
As you can see, it is a bit difficult to answer the question of whether people with mental illness really die 25 years younger, but I feel confident in saying, “No, as a general rule, we do not.”
Gabe Howard is a popular speaker, writer, and advocate who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is an award-winning writer and the creator of the official bipolar shirt. (Get yours now!) Gabe can be reached on Facebook, via email, or via his website, www.GabeHoward.com.