Failure to undertake “routine but life-saving” physical health checks for people with mental illness must come to end post-lockdown, urges charity

16 June 2020

Failure to undertake “routine but life-saving” physical health checks for people with mental illness must come to end post-lockdown, urges charity

Rethink Mental Illness is calling on health professionals and GPs in particular to learn from the crisis of Covid-19 as lockdown eases, taking urgent action to meet NHS targets for essential physical health checks for people with severe mental illness, as a survey from the charity highlights the acute impact of the pandemic on people living with mental illness.

Last year, only 36% of people living with severe mental illness had received all elements of a physical health check from their GP. These are routine appointments which are the vital first step to accessing potentially life-saving NHS physical health support services such as smoking cessation and weight loss clinics, which can all help to manage the side-effects of anti-psychotic medications and other lifestyle factors.

The charity is concerned that the implications of lockdown restrictions disproportionately affect people living with severe mental illness, who on average die 15 to 20 years earlier than the general population – generally because of secondary physical health problems or serious life –threatening issues being “overshadowed” by their mental illness.

This long-term inequality  is compounded by emerging data which shows obesity to be a leading risk factor for more severe cases of COVID-19, when many people living with severe mental illness can experience weight gain as a result of taking some anti-psychotic medications and other lifestyle factors.

The survey of 1,434 people with pre-existing mental health problems in April and May, in which 79% of people reported that their mental health was worth as a result of Covid-19, found that:

  • 54% of people said they had been exercising less than usual during lockdown
  • 51% of respondents said they were eating less healthily than usual, with many people reporting that they had struggled to book the supermarket slots specifically designed for vulnerable people.
  • Respondents also said that they were smoking more (16%), drinking more (23%) and a small proportion also said they were using more illicit drugs (3%). These were likely used as coping strategies or to alleviate boredom.

The charity recognises that Coronavirus placed the NHS under huge pressure and lockdown restrictions meant that many activities were suspended or moved online, but with lockdown easing it is calling for a concerted effort to improve the physical healthcare offered to people living with severe mental illness, with GPs doing more to ensure that the target for physical health checks set by NHS England is met.

This means working together with people living with severe mental illness to review reporting on important targets, to improve access to physical health checks and to co-produce ways of addressing people’s physical health, remotely or socially distanced if required.

Mark Winstanley CEO of Rethink Mental Illness:

“Physical health checks are routine appointments, but they can save lives. If this were just a problem that  has occurred because of Covid it would be entirely understandable but the reality is that people with severe mental illness have been not receiving the checks they are entitled to and need for years. It’s unacceptable that people are dying prematurely of preventable health problems when these GP appointments can do so much to identify and treat physical health issues.

“While the pandemic has placed unprecedented strain on health professionals who have done an incredible job, it has also demonstrated the art of the possible and making sure people aren’t dying of entirely preventable problems is not an unreasonable demand. We want to see a concerted effort to overcome the obstacles which have left us so far from the target set by NHS England and to work with GPs and primary care providers to ensure that people in their care receive these essential health checks.

“This is an example of a long-term issue of inequality which demands our attention as the pandemic threatens to exacerbate the health inequalities experienced by people living with severe mental illness.”

ENDS

Notes to editors

For more information on this topic, please refer to the second publication in Rethink Mental Illness’ Covid-19 briefings which can be accessed here: www.rethink.org/cv19physical

Media enquiries: For further information, please contact Patrick O'Brien, Senior Media Officer, via media@rethink.org or call 0207 840 3138.

About Rethink Mental Illness

No matter how bad things are, we can help people severely affected by mental illness to improve their lives.

We’re Rethink Mental Illness, a leading charity provider of mental health services in England. We support tens of thousands of people through our groups, services and advice and information. And we train employees, employers and members of the public on how best to support someone affected by mental illness. All of this work guides our campaigning for the rights of people with mental illness and their carers.

Working alongside the people we support, we are saving lives. Find out more at www.rethink.org

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