Tipping The Scales
5:00 pm
Thu September 22, 2011

Examining the Link between Obesity and Mental Illness

In 2002, Ken Jue found himself going to funeral after funeral. But at the time Jue wasn’t sure what was killing so many of his mental health patients.

Ten years ago, lots of people were asking the same questions as Ken Jue.

Why were people diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and depression dying so early in life?

“I decided that I needed to look into this because it was just happening too frequently.”

What Jue and others in the mental health field discovered was people suffering from the worst cases were dying at a much quicker rate than the rest of the population.

Dartmouth Doctor Steve Bartels says the major culprit was cardiovascular disease.

“There is a very high rate of obesity, poor nutrition, and smoking...on top of that, many of the medications we prescribe as psychiatrists cause weight gain and cause lipids, fats to go up in the blood, and are associated with higher rates of diabetes.”

The very medication doctors used to help relieve chronic mental illness also slowed a patient’s metabolism and left them feeling lethargic.

But Bartels grumbles no one was paying attention.

“You have a mental health system that until recently has really only focused on people’s mental health and largely neglected their physical health and their physical fitness.”

Ken Jue says it’s like a light bulb went off.

In 2003, Jue, who at the time ran the community mental health center Monadnock Family Services, unveiled InShape.

The idea behind the program was simple, help his clients live longer.

Essentially, InShape pairs a person with a dietician and a trainer to help them learn to eat better and get healthy.

But, and Jue says this is important, the patient decides what goals to set; how much weight they want to lose, what kind of food to cook.

“I think in the field of mental health, we have taken, the professionals, have assumed too much control and too much responsibility.”

At age 18, Meghan Hammond was on 10 medications for Schizoaffective and generalized anxiety disorders.

“I was on Clozaril, Cogentin, Buspar, Depakote, Lithium, Cylexa, I was on Zoloft, I was on Atenolol for my blood pressure. There’s one more I can’t remember.”

What she does remember is how miserable she felt.

Hammond says she went up five dress sizes, an 8 to an 18.

“And that does a number on your self-esteem. You want to feel better, so you take the meds, but then you feel worse, because you gained the weight. “

Hammond couldn’t enroll in InShape until she was 21.

When she finally was eligible, she was matched with a trainer.

Those first sessions at the Y didn’t start off well.

“I would say you are going to kill me, you are going to kill me. And she would say, Meghan I’m going to make sure you live longer. Because with the physical activity you are doing for your heart, for your whole body you are going to live longer.”

Hammond says at the start she lacked self-esteem, plus she didn’t lose weight for 6 months.

But she promised herself she’d give the program a year, and eventually she found she loved exercising, particularly water aerobics.

Today, Hammond is 24, she says she’s shed 25lbs. and is down to a size 14.

She’s not sure if she’ll ever fit into the size 8 she’s tucked away in her closet, but she likes the decisions she’s making for herself.

Like the time she got angry at a friend when they were talking on the phone.

“I was just in rage. I was so angry. And instead of cutting myself, you know to get that out, without even thinking about it I went for this little jog and I was walking just letting out some steam. I got a cup of tea at Starbucks. And I was just letting that energy out.”

Hammond says all this exercise has resulted in eliminating three of her prescriptions.

She’s down to six, now.

Hammond’s experience is the kind of story that explains why InShape is being emulated around the state and in other parts of the country.

Earlier this week, the federal government awarded New Hampshire with a $10 million dollar grant to expand the program.

State officials and researchers are beginning to analyze the financial benefits to InShape.

The thinking is that by emphasizing physical health, the government will save on meds and treating people for heart disease in their 50’s.

But really, mental health folks like InShape creator Ken Jue say the real goal is to make sure people like Meghan Hammond live as long as possible.