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MS and Mental Health Matters

By Mary Pettigrew

Life has its challenges and unpredictable stressors that will affect all of us at one time or another. There are several factors that can make a difference as to how we cope with the various challenges we may face. Mental health issues affect people of all walks of life and the severity of symptoms can vary. Mental health definitely plays an important role in the overall care for people living with MS, other chronic illnesses, and disabilities.

Is this a temporary problem or is it something else

Sometimes we may experience things of a situational nature such as a death or divorce. Our emotional response to such things will be painful and a challenge to deal with, yet these are temporary situations and for most (not all), a sense of normalcy returns over time. Sometimes we may experience something more traumatic, permanent, and life-altering to the point where we feel overwhelmed and lost. This is where things can get tricky, so it’s important to watch for the warning signs indicating something more serious.

If you start to notice changes in your mood, behavior, and other symptoms that negatively affect your life, there might be cause for concern. Don’t dismiss or ignore these signs as if they’ll just go away – that’s not always the case. The level of mental health “seriousness” varies from person to person, but your feelings and experiences are yours – they are valid. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Here are a couple of resources worth perusing:
Several MS clinics have therapists or social workers available on site. This is a wonderful benefit to patients with MS because these therapists focus solely on treating and counseling people with MS. I wish more neurologists and clinics could offer this to patients – it’s needed. Here is an excellent 2022 webinar that addresses the many issues related to mental health and MS. It was hosted by AnCan MS and features guest speaker, Dr. Lauren Strober from the Kessler Foundation.

Click here to view the webinar on YouTube: Mental Health and MS

Warning signs and situations that may require professional intervention:
  • Mood changes
  • Irritability
  • Not feeling like yourself
  • Addictive behaviors
  • Change in habits
  • Behavioral changes
  • Physical changes
  • Changes in work, school
  • Social or family withdrawal 
  • Changes in relationships
  • Chronic illness, disability, cognitive issues
  • Aging
  • Loss of independence
  • Trauma/PTSD
  • Self-Injury and suicidal thoughts or behaviors

Getting started with some professional help:
  • Ask doctors, friends, and mental health organizations for referrals and info.
  • Which doctors are covered under your health insurance plan?
  • What mental health services are covered under your insurance?
  • Prior to your first session with a professional, make a list of issues, concerns, and other problems affecting your overall health. Set goals if possible. 
  • For the best overall outcome, you should feel comfortable with your new doctor or therapist. If it’s not a good fit, it’s time to move on and seek out another professional who meets your needs – create a partnership.
  • Be open and honest.
  • Be present. Just show up.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and talk therapy

CBT teaches ways to counter unhelpful, negative thinking and how to respond to challenges and stressors more effectively. This is the type of therapy I have been doing for years and it’s been quite helpful. Talk therapy helps to explore; uncover the possible connections between whatever mental health issues we are dealing with; and how life experiences, thoughts, behavior patterns, and emotions play a role. It can be quite powerful when a patient recognizes certain patterns that have negatively shaped their lives and coping skills. When the “aha” moments come, the pathways to understanding, coping, and healing can begin to take shape. The more I can do to champion for treatment and therapy, the more I hope it will encourage others. Unfortunately, many people are either unable or unwilling to give it a try. 

Why do some people refuse to seek professional help

Stigma: Mental health issues are often stigmatized, and some individuals may fear being judged or labeled as "weak" or "crazy" if they seek help. Society, family, and friends can be dismissive, even condescending towards those who truly need help.

Lack of awareness: Some people may not recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, or they may underestimate the effect it has on their daily lives. This can lead to a lack of understanding about the need for professional help.

Self-reliance: Some individuals prefer to handle their problems independently and may believe that seeking help is a sign of weakness. They may try to cope with their issues on their own, which can be challenging and may not lead to long-term solutions.

Financial concerns: Access to mental health services can be limited by financial constraints. The cost of therapy, medications, or other treatments may be prohibitive for some individuals, leading them to avoid seeking professional help.

Previous negative experiences: Past negative experiences with mental health professionals or the healthcare system, such as feeling misunderstood or not receiving appropriate care, can deter people from seeking help again.

Fear of medication or side effects: Concerns about taking medications and their potential side effects can discourage individuals from seeking professional help. They may prefer alternative approaches or therapies.

Lack of resources: In some regions, there may be a shortage of mental health professionals or limited access to mental health services, making it difficult for individuals to seek help.

It's important to note that each person's reasons for seeking or not seeking professional help can vary, and it's essential to approach these challenges with education, resources, empathy, and understanding.

Your mental health matters.