DRC investigation suggests people with mental health problems suffer NHS discrimination

A Disability Rights Commission (DRC) investigation has suggested that people with mental health problems and learning difficulties are less likely to receive quality treatment than others, despite their predisposition to major illness and serious health conditions.

The DRC’s 18 month long investigation “Equal Treatment: Closing the Gap” took evidence from senior health professionals, policy makers and people with disabilities from within one Local Health Board (LHB) in Wales and three Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) in England.

As part of the study investigators analysed eight million health records. The evidence suggested that:
• people with mental health problems (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or depression) have higher rates of obesity, smoking, heart disease, diabetes, respiratory disease and stroke than other people. Those with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia also have higher rates of hypertension and breast cancer;
• people with schizophrenia are almost twice as likely as others to have bowel cancer – the second most common cause of cancer death in Britain. This is a completely new finding internationally;
• both people with mental health problems and people with learning disabilities are likely to die younger than other people. People with mental health problems are more than twice as likely as others to get illnesses like strokes and coronary heart disease before the age of 55. Once they have them, they are less likely to survive for 5 years.

Despite being more likely to experience a variety of major illnesses, the DRC investigation has concluded that people with mental health problems are less likely to receive the same treatments and health checks as other patients.
Over 50% of those interviewed said they experienced ‘difficulties’ when trying to see their GP which included negative attitudes of reception staff, inflexible appointment systems and inaccessible information – including information on the side-effects of psychiatric medication.
The investigation also shed light on a problem known as “diagnostic overshadowing”, where symptoms of physical ill health are often assumed to be connected to a patient’s mental health problem or learning disability and therefore not properly investigated or treated.
Throughout the study investigators encountered “complacency” and “lazy fatalism”, as well as assumptions that these groups “just do die younger” or “just won’t look after their health or attend appointments”.

The DRC has warned that the UK Government could face legal action when a new Disability Equality Duty comes into force in December. The new duty will oblige health authorities to ensure their policies and practices do not discriminate against disabled people.

Bill Walden-Jones, Chief Executive of Hafal, Wales’ leading severe mental illness charity said: “It is well known that people suffering from serious mental illness are more likely to have poorer physical health. Urgent action must be taken to ensure that these most vulnerable members of society get the same access to quality health care as everyone else.”

To see the investigation in full, go to: