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Mental health effects of arthritis under-recognised, charity says

Arthritis can have a significant impact on people’s mental health and wellbeing, in addition to physical symptoms such as joint damage and pain, according to Arthritis Ireland.

The national patient organisation is highlighting the effect the disease has on mental health during National Arthritis Week, which starts tomorrow, 12 April).

Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation, according to the charity, with three-quarters (76%) of people with arthritis saying they often or sometimes feel tense or wound-up during the current lockdown. An equal percentage say that worrying thoughts often or sometimes go through their mind. Four in five respondents (83%) said that they have often or sometimes felt lonely in the previous month. The findings come from a survey of 1,108 people living with arthritis undertaken by the charity.

Arthritis is the biggest cause of disability in the country and affects one million people in Ireland. The condition is also associated with poor mental health, including depression and anxiety. Research has shown that up to 20% of rheumatoid arthritis patients experience depression, with 30% developing depression within five years of diagnosis.

Gráinne O’Leary, chief executive of Arthritis Ireland, said: “While the physical symptoms of arthritis, like pain and joint damage, are well recognised, there is much less awareness of the drastic effect the condition can have on mental health and well-being.

“The disruptive and destructive nature of arthritis impacts people’s relationships, their careers and their capacity to enjoy life. The burden of living with chronic pain and fatigue affects mental, as well as physical health.

“However, these are poorly recognised within the health system, and there is too little psychological support for people to help them deal with the mental health aspects of living with a chronic disease like arthritis,” O’Leary said.

As part of National Arthritis Week, the charity is holding an online information event on Tuesday 13 April with Dr Jennifer Wilson-O’Raghallaigh, principal clinical psychologist at Beaumont Hospital to discuss the relationship between arthritis and mental health.

“People are amazing in their ability to develop resilience and adapt to very difficult circumstances,” said Dr Wilson-O’Raghallaigh. “Sometimes guilt or shame can get in the way of them getting the help they need. How difficult symptoms are influences many things and can lead to social isolation and a fear of stigma. Even just knowing that people are going through similar experiences and feelings can make a difference.”

Arthritis Ireland will also launch a new online six-week programme to support people with their mental health during the week, entitled Behind the Pain; and will announce details of a nationwide survey about the issue.

They will also air a series of online daily mindfulness sessions with mindfulness teacher, Susan Barrett. The charity will co-host an online symposium about the impact of sleep, diet and exercise on inflammation, which is organised in conjunction with the molecular rheumatology unit at Trinity College Dublin and takes place on Thursday 15 April.

Further information about National Arthritis Week is available on the charity’s website at www.arthritisireland.ie.  National Arthritis Week is supported by Novartis.

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