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How do we help people living with mental health conditions live longer, healthier lives?

by Guest Author on 6 Sep 2018

Psychiatrist and Population Scientist Professor Simon Gilbody of the University of York, has just been awarded £1 million to build his new “Closing the gap network”. With 20 years’ experience in healthcare, Simon has seen how lives can be transformed if the same emphasis is placed on both physical and mental health. Starting this year, the special network of experts from the sciences to the arts will try to understand and tackle the root causes of why the health and life expectancy of people with severe mental ill health is so poor.

Simon Gilbody

Image credit: University of York

What is the ‘mortality gap’ and what are we doing to tackle it?

People who use mental health services experience the poorest physical health and most profound health inequalities of any section of the UK population.

Diabetes, heart disease and chronic respiratory illness, are two to three times more common in this group of people than for people with good mental health. Life expectancy is reduced by 20 to 25 years, and a person developing schizophrenia in their 20s can only expect, on average, to live into their 50s.

This is known as ‘the mortality gap’. Researchers have spent the past 10 years trying to understand it and intervene to reduce it.

Today our ambitious ‘Closing the Gap’ Network, supported by UK Research and Innovation, aims to address physical health inequality for people with the most severe forms of mental illness, through imaginative thinking and collaboration across research disciplines and sectors.

Closing the gap

Ten years ago, experts researching the mortality gap did so alone, investigating the problem from a narrow viewpoint within their own speciality. NHS healthcare was the same, with people being treated for their mental and physical health separately, often with physical symptoms being misdiagnosed or ignored as a feature of an underlying mental health problem.

Logo with cogs

We now understand that paying attention to both mental and physical health, as well as life circumstances, can have a huge impact on a person’s quality of life and even life expectancy.

But frustrating misconceptions still persist. Our network will work hard to dismantle them. For example, while suicide is one of the causes of premature death among people with mental health problems, it’s far from the leading cause. In reality, the big killers are heart disease, respiratory illness, diabetes and cancer – the same as the wider population, only at elevated levels. Lifestyle factors such as smoking, inactivity and poor diet are often more common and inadequately addressed. The impact of social and economic factors such as poor housing, social isolation, chronic poverty and limited access to greenspace is not as well understood as it should be.

Thinking big

Over the next four years, our project team, led by the University of York alongside the University of Keele, will include experts from population health, primary care, health services research, health economics, digital health, environmental science and the creative arts.

Our research will span five themes; effective interventions, technology and data, lifestyle and behaviour, social inequalities and empowerment. We’ve prioritised areas which are under-researched but have potential for new ideas. Examples include analysing ‘big data’ to understand how people move between primary, community, A&E and hospital care, how digital technologies could empower people to help manage their own health, and how interaction with the natural environment and outdoor activity could support both mental wellbeing and physical health.

Partnering with people and charities

Involving people who have experienced severe mental ill health is crucial so we are pleased to be partnering with the Mental Health Foundation. The Equality Trust will help us understand these complex issues through the lens of social, economic and political science. And the York Health and Wellbeing Cohort, 6,000 people with severe mental ill health who have expressed an ongoing interest in our research, will provide vital insights into health and lifestyle.

We hope our network will be a focus for world-leading research to reduce the mortality gap for many years to come. I’m excited to see what we can achieve together.


This is excellent news. I have taken antidepressants for years and years. in the past it was so bad that I had electric shock treatment, after which I have been dogged with memory problems and have forgotten most of my time raising my two children which are precious memories lost. I recently had to accept the use of a wheelchair to get about and since then my weight has increased, which doesn’t help with depression or my heart condition and I am now borderline diabetic. this has been a very difficult time for me learning of the limits wheelchair users face, I’ve been shocked. I’m so glad someone is studying our all round health and living situations, as a Christian, I hope this will help others in my situation but I also wanted to say that my church is a massive support for me. bless you all for your work.

author avatar by Maureen Jepson on 06-Sep-2018 11:44

Thank goodness a joined up approach is being taken at last! Although a holistic approach is taught in our medical schools only lip-service has been paid to it as secondary care gets ever more super-specialised and primary care has been reduced to a box ticking exercise in pursuit of so called risk factor QOF points and hence income instead of providing relationship based continuity care.m

John Macdonald, retired GP

author avatar by John Macdonald on 06-Sep-2018 13:39

This work sounds fascinating. I am CEO of a charity, Food for the Brain Foundation (www.foodforthebrain.org), focusing currently on helping to empower people to tackle and prevent mental health concerns through nutrition and lifestyle, and we would be interested in linking in to understand and maybe even contribute to this work. We currently have a well used website and digital tools that help to provide individuals with positive steps they can take themselves to help tackle often chronic conditions such as depression, schizophrenia, parkinson’s etc. We have some funding to redevelop these and would love to work in conjunction with others to make this collaborative and learn from others experiences on how to support positive behaviour change using digital means especially. I can be contacted directly as CEO at jenna@foodforthebrain.org.

author avatar by Jenna Mosimann on 06-Sep-2018 19:41

I really hope some positive outcomes will come from this work.
My son has had schizophrenia since his 20s. I have for at least the last 15years been saying mental health should not be treated separately from physical health. We believe it’s caused by problems in the brain which is obviously part of the physical body.

author avatar by Sheila on 10-Sep-2018 08:01

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