Jackie Curtis will be speaking at the 3rd annual Mental Health Units Conference 2012 on the 21-22 June in Sydney.
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WHEN Julio De Le Torre awoke in hospital to be told he had suffered a psychotic episode and been diagnosed with bipolar disorder he was terrified.
But then things were compounded further when the medication he needed brought with it a crushing side effect – within six months he had gained 20 kilograms.
“It was a very, very dark moment in my life. It was like having a double illness, both physical and mental,” he said.
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But Mr De Le Torre, who was 21 and studying aerospace engineering at the University of NSW when he became sick two years ago, was lucky to have the help of a radical new treatment regime developed by doctors at the Early Psychosis Program at Bondi.
The regime, which has been implemented across the state and will soon run in Britain, could be a key to tackling the high number of patients who will die early deaths linked to weight-related problems.
For Mr De Le Torre, it has meant a return to a healthy life.
As well as losing the 20 kilograms in three months, he has managed to finish his degree and is pursuing a career in engineering. “I feel like a normal person now,” he said.
About one in 200 Australians are treated for psychosis in any month, and it tends to hit people in their late teens or early adulthood. Modern antipsychotic drugs save lives but the side effects can include serious weight gain and metabolic problems, potential contributors to the 20 per cent reduction in life expectancy of people with psychosis.
Someone with schizophrenia is 10 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease than suicide, according to Jackie Curtis, the clinical leader at the Bondi centre.
“Think of the amount of time we spend on suicide prevention and compare it to what we spend on this,” she said.
As well as providing exercise and diet advice, young patients can be given drug treatments such as the diabetes drug metformin or cholesterol-treating statins more commonly associated with much older people.
Dr Curtis believes in future psychiatrists might automatically prescribe metformin when they put patients on antipsychotics.
“We know the first 12 months of treatment for a young person who was previously not exposed to the medications is the greatest period of weight gain,” she said. “Imagine putting on 20kgs in that period of time.”
The program, outlined in the journal Early Intervention in Psychiatry this week, was developed by a team from the Bondi centre, the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, St Vincent’s Hospital and the University of NSW.
Dr Curtis said she hoped to do further research to identify whether it also improved the psychiatric outcomes of the participants.