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Health groups tackle physical health of people with mental illness

Dietitian and exercise physiologist Gabrielle Mast
Photo: Dietitian and exercise physiologist Gabrielle Maston
Increasing access to dietary and exercise interventions coupled with psychological and medical treatment is vital for people with mental health illness.

That’s the message from three key health professional organisations, the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA), Exercise and Sports Science Australia and the Australian Psychological Society (APS), to encourage nurses and other clinicians to embrace holistic multidisciplinary treatment to improve the quality of life, and the physical and mental health outcomes, of people experiencing mental health illness.

The peak bodies have released a joint position statement, Addressing the physical health of people with mental illness, which calls for regular screening and ongoing monitoring of both physical and mental health, strengthening referral networks and collaboration between core professionals in the mental health treatment team.
Research shows high rates of physical illness, such as diabetes, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease and cancer exist among people with serious mental illness, with people experiencing serious mental illness two to three times more likely to have diabetes and four times more likely to have cardiovascular disease compared to the general population.

Depression is known as an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease, and can also impact on the recovery of people with coronary heart disease, increasing their risk of further heart problems.

Gabrielle Maston, Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) and spokesperson for the DAA, said people living with serious mental health illness often experience lifestyle-related conditions impacted by poor diet and lack of activity.

Ms Maston, a dietitian and exercise physiologist, said she works with a variety of clients with comorbid conditions associated with mental health illness at her Sydney private practice, Changing Shape.

“We know that people who suffer from mental health illness are more likely to suffer from diabetes and cardiovascular disease, therefore people usually come to see me for those reasons rather than the mental health side of things,” she said.

“If people are taking antipsychotic medications, they tend to have an increased appetite and an disinhibition for eating itself so it becomes a big problem with weight control in particular.

“So it’s just understanding the role, for example, that medications have in appetite stimulation and also people’s coping mechanisms with things in everyday life.

“For example, people with depression sometimes cope by eating more and then they end up with weight problems,” she said.

“Combining treatments does help these people improve their complete wellbeing as well as their mental health.”

High levels of comorbidity with chronic disease contributes to poor quality of life and is acknowledged as one of the major reasons for the high mortality and morbidity rates among people with serious mental illness, with the risk of death estimated to be more than two times higher in people with mental disorders compared to the general population.

The position statement also outlines the role of APDs, accredited exercise physiologists and psychologists when it comes to managing mental illness, and details the existing referral and funding pathways to support access to dietitians, exercise physiologists and psychologists.


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Karen Keast

Karen Keast is a freelance health journalist who writes news and feature articles for HealthTimes.

Karen regularly writes for some of Australia’s leading health news websites and magazines.  In a media career spanning 20 years, Karen has worked as a senior journalist in newspapers and television. She has covered the grind of daily news and worked as a politics reporter at countless state and federal elections.

Since venturing into freelance writing five years ago, Karen has found her niche in writing about the health sector for editors, businesses and corporations.

Karen has interviewed the heads of peak health organisations in Australia and overseas, and written hundreds of news and feature articles covering the dedicated work of health professionals who tread the corridors of hospitals and health services, universities, aged care facilities and practices, day in and day out.

Follow Karen Keast on Twitter @stylemywords