Severe mental illness linked to lower cancer screening

  • Date: 04 May 2023

ADULTS with severe mental illness are less likely to attend cancer screening than those without such conditions, according to a study published in the British Journal of Cancer.

Participation in screening was lower for people with severe mental illness (SMI) for all three national programmes – breast, bowel and cervical – with the largest disparity seen in bowel cancer screening (42 per cent with SMI vs 59 per cent without).

The figures suggest this may be a contributing factor to SMI patients being more likely to die prematurely from cancer.

Dr Robert Kerrison, lead author of the study and co-lead of the Cancer Care group at the University of Surrey, said: “People with severe mental illness are two and a half times more likely to die prematurely from cancer than their peers.

“Their cancer is often diagnosed at an advanced stage, which limits the treatment options available to them. Increasing early diagnosis, through screening, could help save lives from cancer and reduce inequalities in cancer outcomes.

“We now need to learn more about why participation rates are lower for these individuals, so that medical professionals can tailor support and make it easier for people with severe mental illness to attend.”

The study included data from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink, which comprises medical records from patients registered at over 1,000 general practices in England.

The data also revealed that SMI people from some ethnic minority backgrounds were also less likely to attend cancer screening appointments. Participation in bowel cancer screening was lower among Black adults with SMI, compared with White adults (35 vs 44 per cent), and the same was true for Black adults without SMI compared to White adults (48 vs 62 per cent).

Dr Ian Walker, executive director of policy and information at Cancer Research UK, commented on the findings: “This research not only exposes concerning barriers to participating in cancer screening faced by people with severe mental illness, it also crucially shows where these disparities persist across ethnic minority groups and in more deprived areas.

“We need to delve further into this area of research to properly understand why these gaps exist. It’s vital that we work with individuals and communities to build targeted interventions that ensure everyone benefits equally from programmes that diagnose cancer early and, ultimately, save lives.”

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