A new study released in the journal World Psychiatry revealed that mental disorders, many of which go undiagnosed and untreated, could be taking more years off of people’s lives than chain smoking does. Experts say it’s time for governments to step up and help the mentally ill drop the stigma and get help.

The study, which took data from 1.7 million participants in 20 different recent studies and reviews in wealthy countries, found that mental illness is reducing life expectancies by about 10 to 20 years. By comparison, chain smokers die eight to 10 years earlier than non-smokers. This means that having a mental disorder can increase your mortality by almost double what chain smoking would.

Oxford University psychiatrist, Dr. Seena Fazel led the study and says that it is a wake-up call for governments. "So much emphasis has been placed on reducing smoking and smoking deaths," she said. "Mental illness doesn’t receive the same attention in public health and public policy."

About 20 percent of the population in the U.S. and U.K. are smokers; a similar percentage have some sort of mental disorder. However, far more public attention and emphasis is placed on helping smokers quit than helping the mentally ill.

Despite the obvious consideration that mentally ill persons are more likely to commit suicide, it is unclear what else contributes to shortening their lives. Mental illnesses like depression can take a serious toll on the physical health of the sufferer, and the mentally ill are less likely to go to the doctor or take basic care of their own health. Recent reports also indicate that people with mental disorders tend to receive unequal treatment at health-care facilities.

There’s no easy answer to the issue of mental illness, but Fazel says we should be attacking it from all sides. The medical community must find better ways to help the mentally ill, he says, “and beyond that, we can address the stigma in the general population.”

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