A Healthier Lifestyle May Help Curb Mental Illness

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For people with serious mental illness, help doesn’t have to come solely from treatments like medications or medical procedures. Making positive lifestyle changes also can have a significant impact on health and well-being, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.

Individuals with serious mental illness die an average of eight years younger than members of the general population, with cardiovascular disease and related risk factors accounting for the majority of deaths. Emory researchers sought to synthesize the common factors for success in lifestyle interventions, and to identify specific considerations in adapting these models for those with serious mental illness.

“People with serious mental illness often lead sedentary lives and eat more saturated fat and fewer fruits and vegetables than the general population,” writes study author Martha Ward, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the School of Medicine. “Additionally, these individuals have elevated rates of tobacco use, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes—factors that create significant risk for cardiovascular disease.”

The researchers found that successful lifestyle intervention programs include multiple components, are tailored to specific patient needs, are of longer duration, provide frequent contact, and require trained treatment providers. They might include education about healthy food choices, through visits to grocery stores and cooking demonstrations; recommendations for daily exercise; personalization of diet and exercise habits to increase patient participation; tailoring diet to patient food preferences, occupation, family environment, and social support; and the use of cognitive behavioral strategies including goal setting, self-monitoring of food intake, and physical activity.

They also recommend treatment duration of at least four to six months, and the engagement of multidisciplinary teams that include both professionals and lay leaders.

The researchers noted that though similar interventions in the general population may inform the creation of programs for those with serious mental illness, addressing the unique needs of these patients also is an important step in program development. 

According to the study, “Intensive and multifactorial programs may be necessary to combat symptoms of mental illness, and creative solutions to socioeconomic limitations are essential.”

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