The Impact of Mental Illness

Women speaking to mental health doctor

Mental illnesses are not to be taken lightly, yet as a nation as a whole, are we doing enough to raise awareness of the severity of these diseases? What help is there for those who are struggling under the weight of a mental illness?

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it is estimated that over 50 million people suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, with nearly half of those with any mental disorder meeting criteria for two or more disorders [1].

Mental illness can vary in severity, ranging from mood disorders to personality disorders, schizophrenia, and eating disorders. Anorexia Nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, with more females ages 15-24 dying annual from this eating disorder than any other cause of death [2].

New research findings further impress the severity of mental health disorders, validating the need for greater prevention and treatment measures. A recent study completed through Oxford University has shown that mental disorders can decrease life expectancy by ten to twenty years. This reduction in life expectancy is the same or even more than the decrease in life span that is expected among individuals who smoke over 20 cigarettes a day [3].

Researchers analyzed data on approximately 1.7 million patients, mostly from developed countries. As smoking carries a high mortality rate, researchers used statistics from smokers as a benchmark for comparing the effects of mental illnesses.

Interestingly, data revealed that many mental illnesses had mortality risks higher than or comparable to heavy smoking [3]. Anorexia Nervosa and substance use disorders had the highest all-cause mortality ratios, with Anorexia Nervosa, Borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and depression having the highest suicide risks [3].

In reference to these findings, Dr. Seena Fazel, lead researcher for the study, noted, “The numbers suggest that governments need to make mental health care more of a priority. So much emphasis has been placed on reducing smoking and smoking deaths. Mental illness doesn’t receive the same attention in public health and public policy.”

In addition to the overall lack of care and resources for those struggling with mental health disorders, the stigmas connected with these diseases may also contribute to inadequate treatment. Many treatment facilities may lack the necessary resources and staff to appropriately address mental health disorders as well.

Perhaps as a nation, we are doing a disservice to the countless men and women who suffer with mental illnesses on a daily basis. Perhaps the first steps in changing this begin with drawing attention to the need for greater prevention and treatment measures, lobbying for better care, and challenging the stigmas that surround mental disorders.

What do you think can be done to bring greater awareness to mental health disorders?

Blog contributed by Crystal Karges, MS, RDN, IBCLC, and Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC, President at Eating Disorder Hope


[1]: Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27.

[2]: Sullivan PF. Mortality in anorexia nervosa. American Journal of Psychiatry. 1995 Jul;152(7):1073-4.

[3]: Chesney E, Goodwin GM, Fazel S. Risks of all-cause and suicide mortality in mental disorders: a meta-review. World Psychiatry 2014.

*Image courtesy of Ambro at

About Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC

Jacquelyn Ekern founded Eating Disorder Hope in 2005, driven by a profound desire to help those struggling with anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder. This passion resulted from her battle with, and recovery from, an eating disorder.