Millions of Australians are living with both physical and mental ill health, according to a new report, which has for the first time revealed the link between chronic disease like diabetes and back pain, and mental wellbeing.
The report compiled by the Australian Health Policy Collaboration (AHPC) at Victoria University, found 2.5 million people are living with both mental and physical conditions.
It found clear links between the two — people living with chronic physical health issues are at a higher risk of developing mental health conditions, while those suffering ill mental health were also more likely to develop physical illness.
It said the combined health conditions affected welfare and education, health services and costs, productivity, employment and social participation.
The research revealed men with mental health conditions were 52 per cent more likely to report having a circulatory system disease than the general population, while women with ill mental health were 41 per cent more likely.
Men with mental health conditions were 74 per more likely to report having back pain, and women were 68 per cent more likely.
Women were 23 per cent more likely to have both a mental and physical illness than men.
“Improving the physical health of people living with mental health conditions, and conversely, the mental health of people living with physical health conditions, must become a priority to improve the health of all Australians,” the report said.
“People with chronic health conditions, such as heart conditions, arthritis, back pain, diabetes, asthma and cancer, should also be assessed regularly for mental health issues to target prevention and early intervention.”
It said those with mental health conditions also needed to be regularly screened for physical ailments.
The research has for the first time quantified the extent of the combined effects of poor physical and mental health.
“We know there is strong evidence about the negative impact of mental health problems for people who already have chronic physical conditions, and equally strong evidence that having a mental health problem increases the risk of every single major chronic disease,” Allan Fels, an advisory member to the AHPC, said.
Rosemary Ainley managed to cope when she received a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in her late thirties.
But a few years later, when the medication she was taking led to her developing type 2 diabetes and cataracts, things began to spiral.
“It was incredibly scary because I was losing vision, then I was trying to organise surgery [to fix it]. There was a lot of trauma involved,” she said.
She went from working part-time, to spending much of her time at home on a disability pension.
“Being told it would be hard to find a job that I could do, at the age of 44, was quite challenging,” Ms Ainley said.
She said planning any sort of outing became extremely hard, and it took a toll on her mental health.
“Always trying to work out what your body would do. ‘Will I have the energy to go to that party? Will there be a chair for me to sit down on?'” she said.
“You’re conscious of the fact that you’re not doing what others are doing.”
Ms Ainley, now 48, sought professional help for her mental health issues, just as she did for her chronic health issues.
She has now found a treatment option that is working for her, which includes doing yoga once a week and running a support group for young women with arthritis.
She said other people suffering chronic illness who feel their mental health is suffering should seek help.
“Talk to your GP about getting a mental health plan, and it’s OK to seek counselling. You’re not alone,” she said.