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Project to address inequity around mental health


Poor nutrition and inadequate physical activity are two risk factors linked to premature death for people with a mental health condition.

A three-year project, led by Professor Jenny Bowman from the University of Newcastle’s School of Psychology, will look to build the capacity of community mental health services to provide better preventative care.

The research team, which brings together expertise from across the university, as well as the Hunter Medical Research Institute, the University of Melbourne and Flinders University in Adelaide, has been awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council grant of more than $1.3 million.

People with a mental health condition die between 10 to 15 years earlier than the general Australian population, largely, Professor Bowman said, due to potentially preventable chronic disease and a higher prevalence of modifiable risk factors, including poor nutrition and inadequate physical activity. 

“This really is an issue of inequity,” she said.

“In addition to managing a mental health condition, people are also experiencing an extra burden from preventable physical chronic diseases.

“By developing and testing a new model of care, in collaboration with mental health services and clinicians, we’re hoping to make a difference to this now widely-recognised problem, and support people with a mental health condition to make positive changes to their nutrition and physical activity risk behaviours.”

Professor Bowman added existing clinician and systems barriers, such as inadequate time, low clinician confidence and a perceived lack of referral options, impede the routine provision of preventative care in mental health consultations. 

The research team will aim to overcome these barriers by working with mental health providers to co-design and test a new model of care, integrating a ‘dedicated provider’ within mental health services and offering all clients a consultation-focused on preventive care for nutrition and physical activity risks. 

The integrated practitioner will be a specialist in preventative care and will be responsible for the initial screening of clients and will assist in increasing the capacity of other mental health clinicians to embed this practice into their routine care. 

“The primary goal of this research is to facilitate the community mental health services to progress with a feasible way forward that will empower their clients to make positive changes to their lifestyle and overall health outcomes,” Professor Bowman said.

“This is so important because we can see the huge gap when it comes to life expectancy for people with mental health conditions and yet so much of it can be prevented. 

“Hopefully, by carrying out this research, we’ll be able to see a way forward to reduce the chronic disease burden and the physical health inequity experienced by this population group.” 

Hunter New England Mental Health Services Executive Director, Dr Marcia Fogarty, who is also an investigator on the project, said that people with mental illness often struggle to maintain a healthy diet and a healthy weight and physical fitness. 

“I am very pleased our mental health clinicians are able to collaborate with psychology researchers to develop tools to improve nutrition and physical activity for our clients in the community mental health teams,” Dr Fogarty said.

The project will involve collaboration with mental health services in three NSW Local Health Districts: Hunter New England, Central Coast, and Mid North Coast.

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