The Importance of Mental Health in Chronic Illness

For most people with a chronic illness, there comes with it a care plan that includes multiple specialists. One of these specialists is a psychologist. This makes complete sense, given the toll it takes on the person, body and mind.

However, I hadn’t really been thinking much about it lately, just going along with the flow. Going to each doctors visit and every specialist like a good little patient, without really thinking about what each of them means in my care plan. I hadn’t received the answers I needed from any of them, so I stopped expecting anything from them, and in turn stopped reaping any benefits.

I just kept going to the appointments, adjusting my medications as instructed, doing whatever else they told me, in a numb like zombie state. I thought I had simply accepted my lack of diagnosis and was going on with life, but really I was avoiding feeling that constant frustration, disappointment and guilt.

With my health condition (which may or may not be Lupus) comes many symptoms and many obstacles – the latest being chronic (almost daily) migraines. Even if I don’t have a full blown migraine, I do have some degree of head pain or malaise. If you have never had a migraine, imagine something that caused you horrible pain… Like menstrual cramps or being kicked in the balls (sorry boys.) Now imagine feeling that pain on varying levels daily… It would become kind of hard to think about anything else, right?

That’s what I realised was happening to me as I sat in front of my psychologist after not having seen her for 3 months. I realised in all my effort to look after my physical health, I had actually forgotten something just as important – my mental health.

Now imagine this – I’m sitting in front of a highly experienced clinical psychologist, with 24 years of experience and a PhD. After approximately 40 minutes of her trying to find out what’s been going on in my life and how I’d been feeling, she actually laughed at how difficult it was to get an answer. She was so stumped that she actually laughed, in a very awkward way. I’d once been told many years ago by a different psychologist that getting information from me was like getting blood from a stone. In this moment, I finally understood her frustration.

Now, let me be clear, I wasn’t intentionally being difficult. I’m a very honest person. If I had known how I’d been feeling lately, I most definitely would have shared it with her. But the thing is, I hadn’t thought about it much. When she asked me how I’d been feeling, the only answer that came to mind was physical pain – which wasn’t actually what she was asking about. But when I tried to think about emotions in regards to any situation we had just been talking about, my mind actually went completely blank!

We did get somewhere in the end, she managed to get one emotion out of me and we managed to get to the root of it. All in the last 5 minutes – proving what a skilled doctor she is! But the entire session did actually highlight one major issue to me, and probably to her. That I was not looking after my mental health in the slightest. I was… I AM, so consumed by my physical health, and in my chronic pain, that I completely overlooked my mental health.

That is an incredible mistake – one I’ve never made before. I was genuinely shocked by this revelation.

This highlighted for me the importance of managing your mental health, even while in the midst of a physical health debacle – ESPECIALLY while in the midst of a physical health debacle. Both physical and mental health go hand in hand, and one most certainly can affect the other.

This brings me briefly to the topic of trauma. One would expect trauma to come in the form of a car accident or abuse – but it can also come in the form of an illness. During or after a trauma, people can experience a kind of ‘numbing’ effect (I don’t know the exact clinical term.) This is something I’ve experienced in the past, so I was deeply surprised that I had slipped up and forgotten to focus on something so important.

This is something that should be remembered not only for those suffering from any kind of chronic illness, but also for their loved ones. There is a VERY good reason why psychology plays a part in our care plans, and it’s not something we should be taking a part in just for the sake of it. If you’re going to look after your health, look after ALL of it. If you’re going to check in on someone suffering from a chronic illness, ask them how they’re feeling emotionally also. It may just be the reminder they need.

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