New Medical Facility Hopes To Extend the Lives of Those With Severe Mental Illness

Nov 2, 2011

Another new medical facility is under construction in Pittsburgh, but this one will be different. It combines physical health care and mental health care.

For the last few months, Dr. Paige Forrest has been visiting people who haven't seen a physician in years. They might have seen a psychiatrist, their prescriptions for anti-psychotics or anti-depressants may be getting filled, but a good old-fashioned visits to the doctor, with a look into the eyes and ears, a check of blood pressure, and a heart disease screen — they haven't done that. It shows and it matters.

"This is a population that, even more than general populations, needs primary care. Those with severe mental illness are dying, on average, 25 years earlier than the general population. And this isn't because of suicides or accidents. This is because they're dying of the exact same things the general population is which is heart disease, cancers, etc," she said.

The people Forrest vists have severe mental illness.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, if you live in the United States and have a serious mental illness, you are likely to die between the ages of 49 and 60. That's a life span on par with sub-Saharan African countries like Sudan.

Forrest is going to see these patients because in a few months, when Mercy Behavioral Health opens its new facility on the South Side, she will be the primary care physician there. For years, Mercy has offered mental health and substance abuse services. But now, they're moving into a new realm by opening an integrated care facility that under one roof will have both mental health and physical health services. By visiting prospective patients before the clinic opens, Forrest hopes it will make it easier for them to come see her.

"If I meet someone and they aren't very willing to talk to me or don't want me to come into their home … that's fine. The point is over years to develop a relationship," she said.

That relationship is important because it may extend their lives.

Bob Adamson is Director of Behavioral Health Services at Mercy Behavioral Health. He says the gap is getting bigger. The life expectancy of the general population is rising, while the life expectancy of someone who is seriously mentally ill is slightly decreasing.

There are a number of reasons for the reduced life span. It's not that schizophrenia gives you heart disease or obsessive-compulsive disorder will make you have a stroke. It is much more intangable. Paige Forrest said there are three factors: provider factors, patient factors, and then there are sort of societal or system factors, such as insurance barriers.