Our Peers Are Dying Like Flies
Tyrone J. Garrett, Advocacy Unit Member, Sky Light Center Clubhouse
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The unnecessary deaths of our peers can be prevented
Members and staff of Sky Light Center Clubhouse in Staten Island, New York were saddened this year by the sudden and untimely loss of several active club members whose deaths occurred at relatively close intervals.
A well-loved male member in his forties passed away due to weight and health issues, and another succumbed to complications incurred by his cigarette addiction. A female Sky Light Center member was the victim of an unsettling suicide, and recently yet another female in her 40’s died unexpectedly due to health issues. These deaths, and thousand of similar fates, could, and should have been prevented.
It has been known for several years that persons with serious mental illness die younger than the general population. However, recent evidence reveals that the rate of serious illness and death in our population has increased. In fact, persons with serious mental illness are now dying 25 years earlier than the general population.

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for persons in the United States. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease are well studied. Smoking, obesity, high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure are often interrelated and one may influence the other.

Over the past 20 years or so, the use of newer anti-psychotic medications has increased despite their greater cost, largely due to a decrease in side effects and the perception that people using them may experience better outcomes. However, the second generation medications have become more highly associated with weight gain, diabetes, abnormal cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and diabetes. When three or more of the negative symptoms are diagnosed, this is known as the “metabolic syndrome,” and these multiple risk factors are associated with increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Also, the use of multiple drug combinations has been identified as a risk factor for sudden death.

Smoking is a natural risk factor for an increase in the number of deaths. Men and women smokers lost 13.2 and 14.5 years of life respectively due to their smoking. Smoking prevalence is among the highest for people with mental illness. Seventy-five percent of individuals with either a chemical addiction or mental illness smoke cigarettes as compared with 23% of the general population. Smoking cessation may be the intervention that is likely to have the greatest impact on decreasing rates of death.

Suicide is a serious public health challenge that has not received the attention and degree of national priority it deserves. It is the leading cause of violent deaths worldwide. Many Americans are unaware of suicide’s toll and its global impact. Suicide has traditionally been a focus of concern for mental health professionals. Broadening our view to the other causes of death should not reduce our vigilance regarding the risk of suicide in our peers, and the people we serve.
Addressing the epidemic of chronic medical illness and premature death is essential to realizing the promise of recovery. Poor physical health puts additional barriers on the path to recovery, stealing time, energy, and personal resources that could go towards recovery. Even more tragically, premature death robs the recovering individual of the fruits of a meaningful life in the community. We must engage people with serious mental illness in their healthcare in new ways, empowering them to take personal responsibility for making healthy choices to promote their individual recovery and wellness efforts.
The author obtained most of his data from a report titled, “Morbidity and Mortality in People with Serious Illness”, National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors, October 2006.
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