Prominent Psychiatrist from Stellenbosch University Joins Global Initiative to Address Mental Health Crisis

These alarming figures have spurred an international group of experts into action, including Professor Soraya Seedat, head of the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University (SU) in South Africa.


Prof Seedat is part of a 40-strong team of global researchers who have published a groundbreaking article in the highly regarded publication, “Lancet Psychiatry”.


The paper maps out the risk factors associated with early death among individuals with mental health problems and presents solutions to tackle these issues.

The extensive study takes into account a wide array of interrelated factors such as poverty, social isolation, addiction and neglect to create a comprehensive roadmap for mental health care reform.


The data presented in the study highlights the urgent need for radical changes in current mental health care policies.

Mental health services worldwide have been notorious for neglecting and even excluding individuals from vulnerable groups, resulting in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths every year.


“One in three South Africans has a mental health condition, and mental disorders rank among the top 10 leading causes of disease burden in South Africa,” said Seedat, who is also co-director of the South African Medical Research Council’s unit for anxiety and stress disorders.


According to her, physical health conditions and suicide are the two foremost reasons that people with mental illness die many years earlier than people without any mental illness. Both are preventable and need to be prioritised, as do other factors that contribute to the increased risk of premature death, such as trauma exposure, unemployment, income insecurity, social exclusion, stigma and poor access to health care.

She said, “People with severe mental illness die too soon; their lives are scandalously short. This is due to the tragedy of suicide as well as a disproportionately high rate of physical health problems with low detection.”


In her paper, Seedat highlights some of the major factors contributing to the rising death rate of mental health patients.


“People with severe mental illnesses can have their lives shortened by up to 10 years in comparison to the general population. This is due to the complex relationship between physical and mental health as well as suicide.


“Systematic underfunding of mental health services compared with physical health services is a major global problem.

“Suicide still remains one of the top 20 causes of death globally, claiming the lives of over 703 000 people annually. Low and middle-income countries bear the brunt with at least 80% of suicides.


“Socio-economic disadvantage and trauma are key risk factors for suicide. Although suicide can affect people from all backgrounds, those who are socially disadvantaged are disproportionately at risk of suicide and premature mortality from mental illness.

“People with mental illness are more likely to experience systematic social exclusion, such as homelessness, which is also associated with premature mortality.

“Too often, health care professionals misattribute physical health problems to an existing mental health condition, which delays people with such conditions from receiving the health care they need for their physical health conditions,” read the paper.


Although these factors are widely acknowledged, more research is desperately needed to identify ways to lower these risks and implement changes to both medical and general government policies in order to increase the life expectancy of those with mental health conditions or in the mental health the study raised.

The paper’s lead authors are Professor Rory O’Connor, director of the Suicidal Behaviour Research Laboratory at Glasgow University and Professor Carol Worthman from the anthropology department at Emory University in the US.


“Globally, too many people die prematurely from suicide and the physical health problems associated with mental illness and mental distress. These devastating losses are preventable,” said O’Connor.


Worthman said, “The time to act is now, to rebuild health care systems, to prioritise mental health funding and address the effects of stigma, discrimination, marginalisation, gender violence, and victimisation.”

“By integrating experts by experience on an equal footing, we have aimed to create a fuller, more representative knowledge of the problems that underpin why people like me are likely to live shorter and more difficult lives as a result of mental illness.”

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