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This is a plain English summary of an original research article. The views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) at the time of publication.

Women with poor mental health are less likely than others to come forward for breast screening, new research has found. Not attending cancer screening could partly explain why people with mental health conditions die younger than the general population. It means that cancer is more likely to be diagnosed later when it is less treatable.  

The research was carried out in Northern Ireland and included nearly 60,000 women. They were all eligible for routine NHS screening for breast cancer. One in ten reported poor mental health. This group was substantially less likely to attend breast screening than women without mental health problems (23% less likely).  

The authors suggest that health services should explore targeted interventions, such as more frequent appointment reminders. This could encourage women with mental illness to attend screening appointments. 

What’s the issue?

If cancer is diagnosed early, treatment is more likely to be successful. That is the rationale behind screening programmes for those at highest risk. In the UK, women aged between 50 and 70 are invited for breast cancer screening; they are offered X-rays (mammography) once every three years.  But not everyone who is asked to attend an appointment does so. 

Over the last ten years, research has found that some groups are less likely to accept screening invitations. Women who live in less affluent or urban areas, and those who are not married, are less likely to attend. 

Previous work from the US has suggested that poor mental health may be another reason. Unlike in the UK, where NHS screening is free of charge, women in the US pay for screening (either directly or through insurance). Researchers wanted to know whether mental health would have a similar effect on screening here.  

People with mental illness are known to have a reduced life expectancy and are more likely to die from many health conditions, including cancer, than the general population. Lower rates of screening may contribute to avoidable cancer deaths and could explain the higher rates of death in people with mental illness. 

Deprivation, urban-living and not being married are all linked with poor mental health. Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast wanted to tease out these factors. They explored how far mental illness can explain lower rates of breast screening.   

What’s new?

The Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study includes data on one in four (28%) of the Northern Ireland population. It includes women’s responses to questions on mental health in the 2011 Northern Ireland Census. The authors linked this information to women’s records on breast cancer screening. 

Nearly 60,000 women aged between 50-70 were included in this study. One in ten had reported a mental health condition. 

The study found that: 

    • women with mental illness were less likely to attend screening than women who did not report mental health conditions (23% less likely)
    • not being married or living in an urban area were each linked to a similar reduction (23% less) in attendance
    • the effect of social deprivation was greater, and women in this group were 34% less likely to attend breast screening
    • mental health had an impact across all groups of women, regardless of social deprivation, urban living or marital status.

Why is this important?

The findings show that women with mental illness are less likely to attend breast screening. This is concerning, say the authors, as poor mental health was common among the women eligible for screening. 

The effect of mental health on screening was seen across all groups. Women with mental health problems were less likely to attend screening, regardless of deprivation, marital status or urban living.  

The authors conclude that the NHS should explore strategies to encourage women with mental health conditions to attend screening appointments. These women may be less motivated than others to accept screening, they may be more likely to neglect themselves and not to prioritise prevention.

What’s next?

The authors suggest interventions such as more frequent reminders of the screening appointment. Text messages, phone calls and even home visits could make a difference. Increasing awareness of this study among GPs could also help. Some women might benefit from a visit to the screening clinic in advance of their appointment, or from a longer appointment, to help address anxiety about the screening procedure. 

As yet, no studies explore the direct impact of such interventions on participation in health screening. This would be an interesting area for further research. 

This study provides convincing evidence of inequality in uptake of breast screening for women with mental illness. But the underlying reasons for these inequalities are not fully understood. Further research could explore specific barriers to attending breast screening among those with mental health problems. 

This study was carried out in Northern Ireland; further work is needed to establish whether the same would be found in other parts of the UK. 

You may be interested to read

The full paper: Ross E, and others. Does poor mental health explain socio-demographic gradients in breast cancer screening uptake? A population-based study. European Journal of Public Health 2020;30:3 

Another study by the same team looking at the influence of mental illness, as assessed by the uptake of psychotropic medications, on breast screening uptake: Ross E, and others. Disparities in Breast Cancer Screening Uptake for Women With Mental Illness in the United Kingdom. American Journal of Preventative Medicine. 2021;60:3

Pooled literature comparing breast screening uptake in women with mental illness and those without mental ill health: Mitchell AJ, and others. Breast cancer screening in women with mental illness: comparative meta-analysis of mammography uptake. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 2014;205:6 

Breast Cancer Now's free helpline on 0808 800 6000 offers information and support.


Funding: The funding was provided by the Northern Ireland Department for Employment and Learning (DEL) Northern Ireland and supported by its Public Health Agency.

Conflicts of Interest: The study authors declare no conflicts of interest.

Disclaimer: Summaries on NIHR Evidence are not a substitute for professional medical advice. They provide information about research which is funded or supported by the NIHR. Please note that the views expressed are those of the author(s) and reviewer(s) and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care.

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