‘Close the gap’ on life expectancy for Australians with mental illness

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Australians living with mental illness – especially severe, ongoing conditions –have dramatically worse physical health that the rest of the community. A program from mental health charity, SANE, in partnership with Neami National, aims to change this unacceptable situation.
In a recent report The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) stated that it 'is seriously concerned about the inequalities in terms of physical health and life expectancy of people with serious mental illness'.
‘People with severe mental illness are likely to die up to 25 years earlier than the general population from conditions such as respiratory or cardiovascular diseases caused by obesity, smoking, and a lack of exercise. This is alarming and avoidable,’ says Jack Heath, CEO of SANE.
‘There is incredible value in receiving one-on-one support from someone who shares a lived experience of mental illness,’ explains Arthur Papakotsias, CEO of Neami National.
‘It shifts the dynamic to one of equals, where the coach and the person being coached have common ground to build on. This is one of the most powerful approaches we can adopt to improve the physical health of Australians living with serious mental health issues.’

SANE has partnered with Neami National to develop a unique Peer Health Coaching program to empower and support consumers to make health behaviour changes that will minimise the risk factors and better manage their physical health, to promote positive health outcomes.
After piloting and evaluating the program over three years, the two organisations are ready to offer it to other mental health organisations across Australia.

The benefits go far beyond getting fitter. Working with Peer Health Coaches who understand the challenges, people who complete the program report a number of positive outcomes such as starting and maintaining regular exercise, cooking healthy meals, losing weight, stopping smoking, and improved mental wellbeing.

‘I wanted to try things a different way this time and Peer Health Coaching was really successful for me,‘ explains Rhiannon, who participated in the program following multiple hospital admissions associated with an eating disorder.

‘There was that immediate understanding that I was working with someone who had that lived experience of mental health recovery and that I would be understood. I found that really reassuring and I felt that we could really work through problems together,’ she adds.

As reported in the RANZCP’s report, Keeping the Body and Mind Together: Improving the physical health and life expectancy of people with serious mental illness, ‘psychiatrists and other health professionals need to be encouraged to recognise that weight gain and physical decline that so often occurs with a diagnosis of serious mental illness are by no means inevitable and there are effective interventions to reduce the risk of this happening.

‘Peer based interventions are a critical component of modern mental health care,’ says RANZCP President Professor Malcolm Hopwood.

SANE and Neami National are proud to announce that the Peer Health Coaching Program has won the Mental Health Services Conference 2015 award in the Physical Health and/or Primary Care category. The award will be presented in Canberra today during opening proceedings of the annual conference.

Last updated: 16 May 2019

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