Improving the physical health of people with mental illness

Published:22 November 2019

Dr Robert Stanton

Dr Robert Stanton has earned an Early Career Research Award.

People who experience mental illness may also have a life-expectancy gap, living decades less than they should, yet access to adequate physical healthcare for this vulnerable population is often limited.

That's why CQUniversity researcher Dr Rob Stanton has focused his attention on the use of exercise in the treatment of people with mental illness.

The significance and reputation of his work at national and international level has contributed to his Early Career Research Award, among the 2019 Vice-Chancellor's Awards for Outstanding Researchers.

"One in four people will experience mental illness at some point in their lives, and one in 20 Australians will experience a serious mental disorder such as psychosis or bipolar disorder," Dr Stanton says.

"These vulnerable people often have limited access to comprehensive physical healthcare, leading to a life-expectancy gap of between 10-30 years less than the general population. Sustainable strategies to address the mortality gap are urgently needed."

The Rockhampton-based researcher says exercise is a "potent non-pharmacological treatment" shown to be effective for a range of mental illnesses.

"Exercise is also an effective treatment strategy for many, if not all of the physical health comorbidities, including cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, experienced by people with mental illness.

"Despite the known benefits of exercise, this cost effective and clinically effective intervention is absent from usual care for people with mental illness.

"Much of my work in exercise and mental illness is directed toward embedding an intervention with established efficacy and effectiveness into routine care."

Dr Stanton's leadership in the field has included assembling a team to examine electronic health records, identifying a significant amount of missing data.

"Therefore, metabolic syndrome; a cluster of physical health measures indicating risk of cardiovascular disease or type 2 diabetes, could not be calculated in more than 50 per cent of records. These findings suggest poor use of electronic records may lead to
physical health risk factors being missed by clinicians, resulting in delayed or absence of treatment for physical health conditions."

Further analysis identified the need to examine waist circumference as part of usual care.

"To address this small but significant care gap, I coordinated staff training for local mental health nurses to show how this simple yet vital measure should be performed and how to address consumer and clinician barriers in taking waist circumference measurements in mental health settings."

Dr Stanton's research has included qualitative studies examining how consumer groups navigate complex healthcare systems.

This work, in conjunction with other studies published with his collaborators, has resulted in extended impact, continued funding, and innovation in physical healthcare services for people with mental illness.

Dr Stanton is a Chief Investigator on a successful NHMRC Project Grant to examine the clinical and cost effectiveness of a Physical Health Nurse Consultant role in ACT Mental Health services.

He has led nine separate studies in exercise and mental illness, including three that examine the perspectives of health professionals regarding exercise and mental health, and two that examine responses to various exercise modalities in clinical and laboratory settings.

He is also leading the first study examining the validity and acceptability of affect-regulated tests of cardiorespiratory fitness in people with depressive symptoms, and how this type of test compares to 'maximal' and 'submaximal' fitness tests.