Does Having Bipolar Disorder Equate to an Early Death?

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Last week I read a HuffPost blog by doctor Allen Frances (Duke University) exclaiming the perils of having a serious mental illness (SMI) — such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and severe depression. In the article, he states that people with these illnesses “die 20 years early, on average, because of a combination of lousy medical care, smoking, lack of exercise, complications of medication, suicide, and accidents.”

As the mother of a son with bipolar disorder, my heart sank once again. I read the article over and over, shared it with my husband, read it to my son and posted it on our International Bipolar Foundation’s Facebook page. The statistics are shameful and alarming, and I choose not to accept them as his fate.

Although the claim is frightening, I see it as a wake-up call, an educational call to action. Instead of shaking our heads and saying, “Oh great, thanks for that horrible news”, we can be proactive. Just as the Dr. Oz, “Real Age Test” gives healthy suggestions; we can use this information to make lifestyle changes.

If we pay attention to the medical risk factors inherent in SMI, the 20-year death sentence does not have to become a reality. Mind you, I’m no Pollyanna. I know that no matter how much medical care one gets, weight gain, diabetes, high cholesterol, kidney damage, and the risk of suicide can still be a reality. But with awareness and regular medical care, they can be monitored and if necessary, changes made.

My son may be a good example of someone in a position to make lifestyle changes. At the tender age of 7, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. We were fortunate to have excellent psychiatrists who didn’t just settle for his emotional stability. They monitored his weight and discussed the possibility of his getting diabetes if he remained on a certain drug. Changes were made. We hired a nutritionist, and literally put locks on the food cabinets so he couldn’t forage at night. Now 21, he needs to be in charge of his own destiny. After reading the article by Frances, he has made a New Year’s resolution to reduce his soda intake from three to five per day, to one. He set a goal to go to the gym at least four times a week, and has decided to sell his Xbox (the crux of his sedentary life). Fortunately, for all concerned, he has never smoked and since age 14, has not had suicidal thoughts or engaged in risk-taking behaviors.

Our son refuses to tolerate 20 years loss of life expectancy. If more people with serious mental illnesses were aware of the risks, maybe they would make changes and refuse as well.

This article was featured on the Stronger Together page of the Huffington Post.

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