Managing the mental health impact of MS

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By Jillian Kingsford Smith

Living with MS can be challenging at the times…let’s be honest. And research has already shown that people with MS are more likely to experience anxiety or depression than those without MS. Finding ways to understand what leads to these symptoms of anxiety or depression and how best to manage them is crucial.

Dr Lisa Grech is a MS researcher in Melbourne – who together with her colleagues – has examined what methods people with MS use to cope with and accept their diagnosis and how this affects their overall mental health.

They surveyed 107 Australians with MS and looked specifically at their coping strategies. The results were recently published in the International Journal of MS Care.

“Whilst we understand that everyone with MS deals with their diagnosis differently and also experiences MS uniquely, this research looked at a variety of coping strategies and how those different styles might be associated with better mental health outcomes than others,” explained Dr Julia Morahan, Head of Research at MS Research Australia.

What are coping strategies?

Seeking social support, humour and acceptance, right through to venting of emotions, denial and substance abuse could all be termed ‘coping strategies.’ In this study, the team researched the participant’s coping styles to see how it related to their symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety.

The study found that people who accepted their diagnosis made efforts to do something about it, such as using restraint, planning and social support to cope. The study also found that people who accepted their diagnosis had lower levels of depression. On the other hand, people who reported that they vented their emotions and disengaged behaviourally – for example, withdrawing from efforts to deal with the situation and giving up on goals – had higher levels of depression.

Accept and acknowledge:

“The study reported a far better outcome for those people who adopted a strategy where they accepted and acknowledged that they were in a stressful situation; basically, these people experienced less severity and frequency of stress,” explained Dr Morahan. “Venting of emotions and mental disengagement strategies were statistically associated with more frequent stress.”

Those who use venting strategies are three times more likely to experience severe stress; and those in denial are more than 96 times more likely to experience more severe stress. Mental disengagement can be explained as where people use a variety of activities to distract themselves from thinking about stress.

More positively, the researchers also identified that people who used a growth mindset – for example, actively trying to see things in a more positive light – experienced less anxiety.

What’s the evidence?

This research indicates that the coping strategies used by people with MS are closely linked to their mental health. It suggests that developing interventions that health professionals can use to assist people with MS to modify their coping strategies may prove beneficial for mental health outcomes and quality of life. For example, interventions aimed at enhancing disease acceptance and behavioural strategies targeting personal growth could improve mood and anxiety and reduce stress.

Dr Grech is currently being funded by MS Australia/ MS Research Australia to build on this work, looking at whether a brief screening tool which may be easily incorporated into clinical visits may assist healthcare professionals to better detect and manage depression in people with MS.

It is important that if you are or think you might be experiencing some of these symptoms, that you seek professional help, as there are interventions that can help. Focusing on managing the physical side of MS is important, but equally important is recognising and treating the great impact it has mental health as well.

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