NHS England is pledging to tackle early deaths in mental health patients in England, given that they have the same life expectancy as people living back in the 1950s.

Patients with serious mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are dying earlier from illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, lung disease and liver disease, largely because they are "missing out on vital health interventions," it says.

The organisation believes that more than 40,000 deaths among people with serious mental illness could be reduced if they get the same healthcare checks and interventions as the general population.

"Patients with schizophrenia will on average die 14.6 years earlier, bipolar 10.1 and patients with schizoaffective disorder eight years earlier than the general population," noted Geraldine Strathdee, NHS England’s National Clinical Director for Mental Health.

To paint a better picture for mental health patients NHS England has set out an action plan and a package of supporting measures to address these stark health inequalities and generally improve the care of patients, through better access to therapies, improved medicines management, and more targeted education, for example.

"This needs a co-ordinated effort so that some organisations which traditionally solely address the patient’s psychological problem, also now arrange treatment of the physical health aspects," Strathdee said.

Gov't action plan

The move comes as the Department of Health launches its Mental Health Action Plan, which essentially aims to make mental health as important as physical health and "drive out unacceptable practices that still exist, such as long waiting times, people being transferred long distances to get a bed, face-down restraint being used too often and children being cared for on adult wards and facing a cliff-edge of support when they turn 18".

Its new policy document, Closing the Gap: Priorities for Essential Change in Mental Health, outlines 25 areas for health and care services to take action which it hopes improve the lives of people with mental health conditions, and ensure that the system is fairer for patients.

"All too often, attitudes to mental health are stuck in the dark ages; full of stigma and stereotypes. It’s time for us to bring mental health out of the shadows and to give people with mental health conditions the support they need and deserve," said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Elective care

A key change under the plans is to allow, for the first time, patients needing treatment for a mental health problem to choose where they get their care in the same way that patients needing a hip or knee replacement has had a right to choose which hospital to have their operation at since 2008. 

Moreover, this choice will not be limited to an NHS provider, patients will also be able to choose a voluntary or independent organisation providing NHS services when they go to see their GP to seek help, the DH said.

Also from next year waiting time standards will begin to be introduced for mental health, and other measures include introducing the Friends and Family Test for mental health services and better support for mentally ill children.