Chief Executive, Arthritis Action
The mental health challenges of living with persistent pain require resilliance and specialist help. Empowering individuals to take ownership of their own condition helps them stay positive.
Arthritis is a growing problem in the UK. Arthritis patients have only a finite amount of time with their GP or specialist every year, so they often manage their own condition a lot of the time.
Of the 65 million people in the UK, over 10 million live with arthritis. That figure is expected to rise to 17 million by 2030. Shantel Irwin, CEO of arthritis charity, Arthritis Action, says empowering individuals to better manage their own condition can help tackle a growing problem.
“What’s really promising is that all healthcare practitioners are starting to talk about self-management with patients,” she said.
Increasing importance of self-management
“Yes, they still focus on treatment, but they’re also factoring in ways patients can help themselves, recommending charities such as ours to assist in that.”
The focus, Irwin said, is on giving the individual the confidence, skills and tools to help them ‘live their best lives’.
With over 200 types of arthritis, diagnosing the disease can be difficult for GPs.
There is a link between physical and mental health
Arthritis dramatically increases levels of anxiety, with people naturally more worried about their financial and physical situation changing.
Our physical and mental health are intrinsically linked, which is why having arthritis can be challenging for both our physical and mental health.
“It’s so natural for us to look after our physical health, but there is such a strong link between our physical and mental health. Living in constant pain can really affect people’s mood and outlook on life,” Irwin says.
Finding out that you have arthritis can be daunting, but there are ways to manage. Treatments have improved dramatically. Unfortunately, though, there is still no cure.
The isolating effects of an invisible disease
Understanding of the disease can be lacking, which often leads to people hiding their arthritis from friends and colleagues because they’re scared of what those people might think.
The disease can also be isolating for people in terms of getting out to work or to GP appointments, but also in terms of feeling like they are a burden on their family.
All of this can make dealing with the mental side of the disease a real challenge.
“People are four times more likely to have depression if they have persistent long-term pain,” Irwin says.
“Two-thirds of people with arthritis have reported having depression at some point when their pain is at its worst.”
Giving people the tools to cope on their own is key
To combat that, clinicians are focusing on giving the individual the confidence to take control of their condition through supported self-management.
“There’s no ‘one size fits all’ model,” Irwin says.
Helping someone continue to do the things they love benefits their ability to deal with the mental health challenges of arthritis.
“We try to give people a choice and let them decide what works for them. Some prefer meditation or distraction techniques, whereas some simply want to relax,” Irwin says.
Self-management and wellbeing events are a lifeline for people looking to build confidence in exercise and self-motion, as well as helping them cope with persistent pain.
Irwin concluded by encouraging people with arthritis to get to know their bodies and avoid being passive towards their treatment.
“Individuals know their bodies best. By being part of conversations with their GP, they take more ownership of their condition.”