Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us

Quick Studies


(Photo: Public Domain)

These Mental Illnesses and Addictions Are More Dangerous Than Heavy Smoking

• June 05, 2014 • 10:57 AM

(Photo: Public Domain)

Many mental illnesses and addictions are more heavily associated with premature deaths than heavy smoking, yet we tend to be less aware of their risks.

Everyone knows about the incredible health risks associated with lighting up and drawing nicotine and other toxic chemicals into their lungs and bloodstreams, but the oft-deadlier consequences of a number of other addictions and mental illnesses can frequently be clouded by the public’s intense focus on tobacco smoke.

Citing the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease study, University of Oxford psychiatrists say mental and behavioral disorders accounted for 232,000 deaths in 2010up from 138,000 in 1990. More than three-quarters of those 2010 deaths were linked to substance abuse disorders. Some of the disorders have stronger associations with premature deaths than smoking.

“Smoking has been an important target for preventions because it is so common and perceived to be so dangerous. Mental disorders are also relatively common when considered together, but the risk to life is not perceived in the same way.”

“Smoking has been an important target for preventions because it is so common and perceived to be so dangerous,” the psychiatrists write in a research report published recently in World Psychiatry. “Mental disorders are also relatively common when considered together, but the risk to life is not perceived in the same way.”

The researchers pored over dozens of systematic reviews and meta-analyses dealing with life expectancy and deaths associated with various mental illnesses and addictions. They used the data from these papers to estimate mortality risks, which they compared with the risks of heavy smoking.

The results were as jarring as a blaring smoke alarm.

“From a public health perspective, patients with serious mental illness should be designated as a high risk population for physical illness, given the substantial health disparities compared with the general population,” they write.

Here were the mental illnesses and addictions with especially high mortality risks when compared with the dangers of heavy smoking (which already more than doubles somebody’s risk of dying young):

  • Post-partum psychiatric admission: 770 percent greater association with premature death than heavy smoking
  • Opioid use: 580 percent
  • Amphetamine use: 240 percent
  • Cocaine use: 240 percent
  • Anorexia nervosa: 230 percent
  • Methamphetamine use: 180 percent
  • Psychotic disorders: 180 percent
  • Alcoholism: 180 percent
  • Personality disorder: 170 percent
  • Moderate to profound intellectual disability: 110 percent
  • Heavy smoking: 100 percent
  • Schizophrenia: 100 percent
  • Bipolar disorder: 80 percent
  • Bulimia nervosa: 80 percent
  • Other eating disorders: 80 percent
  • Adults who were diagnosed with ADHD as children: 80 percent
  • Depression: 60 percent
  • Depression and anxiety: 60 percent
  • Cannabis use: 50 percent

Simply grasping these elevated risks doesn’t tell the researchers why sufferers of these ailments and addictions are so prone to earlier deaths.

“We do not know the precise reasons for the excess mortality risk, and more research understanding mediators of this increased risk is necessary,” says Seena Fazel, one of the authors of the paper. “A key determinant of this increased mortality is suicideand these are often caused by the symptoms of the underlying mental disorder.”

John Upton
John Upton is a science journalist with an ecology background. He has written recently for VICE, Slate, Nautilus, Modern Farmer, Grist, and Audubon magazine. He blogs at Wonk on the Wildlife. Upton's favorite eukaryotes are fungi, but he won't fault you for being human. Follow him on Twitter @johnupton.

More From John Upton

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.

October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.

October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.

October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.

October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.

October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?

October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.

October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.

October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.

October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?

October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.

October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.

October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.

October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.

October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?

October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.

October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.

October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.

October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.

October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.

Follow us

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.