Dr Susanne Farwer
Medical Solutions Lead Dermatology, UCB
Dr Catherine O’Leary
Psoriasis Patient and Clinical Psychologist
Most people are aware of psoriasis as a skin disorder, but few understand how this complex condition can impact all aspects of your life.
Psoriasis affects around 1 in 50 people in the UK and is linked to a problem with the immune system which causes skin cells to be produced more quickly than usual. Symptoms include dry, red patches, known as plaques, covered with silvery scales often found on the elbows, knees, scalp and torso. These patches can be painful and itchy and will wax and wane as flare-ups, lasting weeks or months, are often triggered by infection, stress or medication.
Around one third of people living with psoriasis will develop arthritis, a similar proportion diabetes, high blood pressure or obesity, and an even greater number will experience feelings of social isolation, low mood and anxiety.
Psoriasis must be understood as more than a skin condition, says Dr Susanne Farwer. “Although it is not life-threatening, psoriasis can be life-ruining for many, impacting confidence, education, relationships, career choices and participation in everyday activities.”
Recognising your feelings is key
Dr Catherine O’Leary is a consultant clinical psychologist who was diagnosed with psoriasis as a teenager. She agrees that psoriasis can impact people’s mental health as much as their skin: “As a young person, it was often tricky trying to manage psoriasis. I was ashamed of the way I looked and very conscious of what other people were thinking. Even now I sometimes feel this way.”
Talking about your feelings can help and reminding yourself that there are many people with psoriasis out there living fulfilling lives.
Working with a sympathetic healthcare professional is key. Although there have been improvements in treating psoriasis, there is a long way to go towards providing consistent, holistic care. Catherine says: “Many people don’t get offered psychological input or asked about their feelings, and they don’t know how a psychologist can help. It can feel hard to reach out for psychological support if you are embarrassed about struggling emotionally but it can make all the difference in helping you cope.”
Psychological support helps empower people to use techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to keep stress in check and help reduce the vicious circle of flare-ups.
“Because psoriasis is associated with multiple co-morbidities, there is growing evidence that stopping smoking and reducing alcohol intake as well as healthy eating and regular exercise can make a positive difference,” says Dr Farwer. “But apart from working toward a healthier body, it is as important to strive for a healthier mind.”
A listening ear is often enough
Healthy routines and being kind to yourself are important agrees Catherine. “Think about what you can build into your life that relaxes and soothes you. Talking about your feelings can help and reminding yourself that there are many people with psoriasis out there living fulfilling lives. Although growing up with psoriasis was hard, I am the person that I am today because of my experience.”
Dr Farwer believes healthcare professionals should offer compassion as well as medication and be willing to listen. Families and friends need to understand that just being there for people who are struggling is important and often more helpful than trying to ‘fix’ their problems.
Greater general awareness of what psoriasis is and how it impacts mental health could help end the stigma and isolation that people feel and allow them to feel comfortable in their own skin.
Find out more at Dr Catherine O’Leary’s website