We barely notice our bodies in good health. We walk around, eat, sleep, work, taking all of it for granted. Being diagnosed with a serious illness changes everything and this often has an affect on mental health.
A serious physical diagnosis is life altering.
Many struggle to come to terms with the hard road ahead of them and feel frightened about what the future holds. They lose control over things that as adults we regard as rights, like our independence, our ability to dictate our own routines, even choose the food we eat. Basic functions like going to the toilet, walking, eating and breathing can suddenly be a challenge, and people often struggle to hold onto their sense of identity when their everyday routine becomes centered around ill health.
“Going from being a healthy adult to a patient requires a massive psychological transition,” says psychiatrist Dr Justin Dwyer. “This makes people vulnerable to mental health problems.”
The relationship between physical and mental health.
“One of the big issues in modern medicine is the idea that the mind and the body are separate,” says Dr Dwyer. “What we find is that the whole experience of the person, both physical and mental, is impossible to separate.
Psychological distress can be expressed through the body in a variety of astonishing ways, such as loss of vision or changes in gut function. Equally, physical illness can have a profound effect on mood and thought and we find mental illness is much more common among the medically ill.”
Seriously ill patients are particularly prone to some of the following conditions:
Alongside painfully lowered mood, other symptoms include loss of the capacity for joy, withdrawal from social activities and feeling that one has just become a burden on others. Depression impacts upon recovery from physical illness in complex ways. As an example, depression is known to increase mortality after a heart attack and can reduce participation in important interventions, such as physiotherapy. Depression is very treatable in the medically ill population.
Delirium is common in particular patient groups such as the seriously medically ill. Delirious patients experience a host of unsettling psychological disturbances such as fluctuating disorientation, hallucinations and feelings of persecution. Often, these experiences are not well understood by family who can be quite traumatised as they watch their loved one descend in this state. Delirium should always be identified and treated, as it can have long-term impacts upon recovery.
Reducing the risk
“Fostering open communications is the best way to help someone adjust to illness and reduce anxiety and stress,” says Dr Dwyer.
“When you sit down and talk with these people to understand their experience, you begin to see a completely natural response to their situation. Universally, the things that drive their behaviours on the ward are the things that drive us all, such as the wish to keep our identity intact, the wish to avoid suffering and pain, and the hope to remain connected with loved ones.”
“Patients need to feel they’re being looked after for who they are, rather than the condition they have. It’s an important distinction.”
Families and friends can help by talking openly with each other and with staff without the fear of burdening or upsetting one another. Being able to share experiences as everyone moves through diagnosis, treatment and whatever follows, makes an enormous difference.
If more help is needed, see your GP and discuss your options. A referral to a mental health professional may be recommended.