Contextual factors in the health of people with serious mental illness

Leopoldo J. Cabassa, Elizabeth Siantz, Andel Nicasio, Peter Guarnaccia, Roberto Lewis-Fernández

Publication Date: 01/01/2014

People living with serious mental illness (SMI) have shorter life expectancies than the general population. We examined how contextual factors influence the physical health of this population. We conducted interviews, focus groups, and participant observations with stakeholders from six behavioral health organizations. We found that consumers’ avoidance of overt disagreement during medical visits, their mistrust of medical institutions, and cultural variations in body image influenced the clinical encounter. Mental health providers’ ambivalence about intervening in consumers’ physical health, primary care providers’ misattribution of physical symptoms to mental disorders, and providers’ stigmatization of consumers shaped clinical encounters. Consumers’ diets were shaped by food environments and social norms associated with traditional diets. Internal and external factors impacted consumers’ physical activity. In this article, we illustrate the importance of considering contextual factors in the development and implementation of interventions aimed at improving the physical health of people with SMI.