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Mental wellbeing and living with a long-term health condition

It's time to raise awareness of the impact of living with a long-term health condition on mental wellbeing.

Many of our Medichecks’ customers live with a long-term health condition, so on this years’ Time to Talk Day, we think it is important to address the topic of mental wellbeing whilst living with a long-term health condition. 

The scale of the issue

30% of the population live with one or more long-term, physical health condition, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease, HIV or arthritis. Physical health and mental health go hand-in-hand, but for those living with a long-term physical health condition, mental health may not always be prioritised. 

Compared to the general population, those living with a long-term physical health condition are 3 times more likely to experience mental ill-health in their lifetime, with anxiety and depression being particularly common.

Sadly, people with two or more long-term conditions are 7 times more likely to experience depression [1]. 

How can a long-term, physical health condition affect mental health?

Many factors stem from living with long-term health conditions, which could contribute to changes to mental wellbeing. These could include:

  • Living with the burden of pain, which is not visible to others. 
  • Disruptions to your normal life, such as employment, lifestyle changes or regular appointments or check-ups.
  • Inability to do activities previously enjoyed, such as socialising with friends or exercising.
  • Managing unpleasant symptoms, or the side effects of treatment.
  • Changes to feelings of control and independence.
  • Anxiety and insecurity about managing your condition, health, and the future.
  • Lack of understanding or discrimination from people around you. 

One large study (The Diabetes Attitudes, Wishes and Needs (DAWN) study) assessed the impact of living with Diabetes (type 1 and type 2) on wellbeing. Many patients (85.2%) reported a high level of distress at the time of diagnosis, including feelings of shock, guilt, anger, anxiety, depression and helplessness. Many years after diagnosis many patients still reported fear surrounding their diagnosis, including fear of complications and burdens of self-managing their health condition.

Shockingly, only 10% of patients reported receiving any form of psychological treatment [5].

Could I be experiencing a mental health problem?

Temporary feelings of sadness would be expected after receiving bad news or a stressful life event. But it is important not to dismiss low mood or feelings of anxiety as ‘part and parcel’ of your long-term health condition. If these feelings persist over two weeks or more, and you (or others) begin to notice changes in yourself or your behaviour, you should seek help.

Symptoms of depression include: 

•    Feeling hopeless and helpless
•    Not getting any enjoyment out of life
•    Having little motivation or interest in things
•    Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
•    Tiredness or lack of energy
•    Changes to appetite or body weight [3].

Symptoms of anxiety include: 

•    Feeling tense or nervous
•    Worrying about the past or future
•    Not being able to sleep
•    Loss of appetite
•    Faster, irregular or more noticeable heartbeat
•    Problems concentrating [4].

Where to get help and support?

If you think you could be experiencing a mental health problem, it is important to reach out to your doctor, who can arrange the best support for you. If your symptoms are mild, there are a number of apps which you can use on your phone for support and guidance. 

If you need urgent help, you can find your local 24/7 crisis line hereSamaritans also offer 24-hour listening support on 116 123, or text SHOUT to 85258.

You may also find it valuable to join a support group for people who are living with the same long-term health condition as you. You could find that many challenges you experience are shared by others. This can help reduce feelings of battling it alone, and through connecting, you may be able to find solutions for shared challenges.  

A sense of optimism

Many people who live with a long-term health condition live good life quality fulfilled with happiness and wellbeing. So, it is crucial not to dismiss low mood or anxiety as ‘part and parcel’ of your long-term health condition. 

Some long-term health conditions may not be directly treatable, only manageable. But for mental health struggles, there are many successful treatments available; from psychological therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to prescribed medications. Talking with your doctor will help to find the treatments which work best for you.

It is also important to know that it is not only people who live with a health condition that experience mental ill-health. In many cases, there is no obvious reason for depression and anxiety.

If you are struggling, keep in mind that with appropriate support there are brighter days ahead. The NHS now offers a personalised mind plan which you may find helpful. 


References

[1] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/l/long-term-physical-conditions-and-mental-health
[2] https://www.kingsfund.org.uk/publications/long-term-conditions-and-mental-health
[3] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/clinical-depression/symptoms/
[4] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/understanding-panic/
[5] Funnell, M.M., 2006. The diabetes attitudes, wishes, and needs (DAWN) study. Clinical Diabetes, 24(4), pp.154-155.