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MS effects on mental health can't be ignored

Dr Lisa Cameron MP
May 12, 2023

Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is a lifelong autoimmune neurological condition for which the treatment and prognosis have significantly progressed. Without treatment, people with MS have an over-active immune system which attacks the nerves by mistake, sometimes leading to widespread nerve damage in the brain or down the spine. Due to the number of nerves in the body, no MS is the same. 

The physical symptoms of MS are usually experienced with numbness and tingling, loss of balance, dizziness, stiffness or spasms, tremors, pain, bladder and bowel problems, and problems with speech and vision. MS people can also experience memory, thinking, and emotional difficulties. One of the most widespread symptoms of MS is fatigue, of which its roots are not yet fully understood.

MS can be both a visible and invisible disability, dependent on the severity of the disease, which is protected under the Equality Act 2010. It affects 130,000 people in the UK. Recognising the intricate relationship between MS, cognition and mental health is crucial to providing holistic care and support to those affected. Treatments for MS have been ground-breaking in limiting the disability experienced by people with MS, and the MS specialist services have also been seminal in caring for people with MS. 

However, the increased move towards self-management from healthcare providers, the increased need and demands on the NHS, and the intersection between the impact of physical symptoms, fatigue, cognition, and mental health have meant that people with MS continue to suffer in silence, with severe symptoms contributing to their disability.

Given the mounting evidence, the UK government and healthcare organisations must prioritise raising awareness of MS on cognition and mental health. By fostering a better understanding and addressing these aspects of the disease, we can significantly improve overall well-being and quality of life for individuals with MS in the UK.

Increased awareness among healthcare professionals, the general public, and policymakers is vital to ensure early detection, appropriate intervention, and the availability of comprehensive support services.

Take fatigue as an example - it has been likened to having slept four hours, worked a 12-hour day, and run a half-marathon all day. However, feeling this way has no trigger and is not dependent on sleep, strain or effort spent.

Understandably, experiencing such fatigue limits the ability to carry on day-to-day tasks. People with MS can also experience difficulties with their thinking and memory. If MS has attacked nerve cells in the brain, then certain cognitive functions that others might take for granted, such as remembering things, concentrating for long hours, multitasking, problem-solving, or even finding the right words, might become more complex. This is also further compounded by fatigue.

Moreover, the impact of MS on mental health cannot be ignored. Depression, anxiety, and mood disorders are prevalent among those living with the condition. Understandably, the daily experience of such hardships can affect mental health.

Not only do people recently diagnosed with MS often need to go through a process of grief related to loss of identity, a need to re-evaluate and adjust their lifestyles to promote the best chances of living a life which will be least impacted by disability.

However, the widespread impact of MS can lead individuals to experience depression, anxiety, and stress, as well as experiencing uncontrollable, intense emotions.

The widespread impact of MS can lead individuals to experience depression, anxiety, and stress Quote

The causes of MS-related mental health are believed to be through three pathways – MS-related nerve damage, side-effects and reactions to treatment, and psychological reaction to the adjustment and experience of the illness. Unfortunately, mental health in MS is often misunderstood and overlooked by people with MS and those around them.

Although mental health is becoming increasingly understood, therefore reducing the stigma around it, coming to terms with MS-related mental health difficulties continues to face barriers. People with MS, and their loved ones, may have difficulty recognising and accepting the impact of MS on mental health. They may also feel reluctant to talk to their loved ones about it due to fears of further burdening them.

The intricate relationship between MS, mental health and cognition highlights the urgent need for increased awareness and support from the UK government.

Individuals with MS face unique challenges that extend beyond physical disability. Let us rally behind this cause to prioritise awareness, and promote holistic support, to help dismantle the barriers faced by individuals with MS, and in pursuit of better health and well-being.

Dr Lisa Cameron MP writes alongside Léa Beretti, Trainee Clinical Psychologist.

Lisa

Dr Lisa Cameron is the Conservative MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow.

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