Liina Toome from Estonia has factor VII deficiency.12
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Published 06 June 2020 | 3 min read
Emotional or mental health is important, perhaps as important as physical health. When mental health is impaired, thoughts, feelings and behaviours can themselves turn into life problems rather than providing a window through which one may look and make sense of life.1
It is hard to manage physical symptoms, but even harder doing so while hardly having enough energy.
Fortunately, the haemophilia community has already done much to address and propose solutions for mental health issues. Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of the whole situation before finding out how mental health can be promoted for the individual.
Pain is one of the most common symptoms for people with haemophilia (PwH). In one study, 89% of PwH said that pain recently interfered with their lives.2 For 50%, the pain is constant.3
Nearly as many PwH, namely 47%, report psychological or psychiatric conditions.4
But does pain cause psychological problems? In the case of depression, a common psychological condition for PwH, its relationship with pain has been well studied. According to one estimate, 1 out of 2-3 people who suffer from chronic pain also have a major depressive disorder.5
While simply having a chronic disease can put a person at greater risk of depression6 for some PwH the mood impact comes suddenly.
One young man with haemophilia remembers clearly the shock of finding out what exactly had to be done about his loss of mobility and muscle mass:
“I had to start using crutches. A feeling of deep sadness took over my entire body, but at the same time I was comforted by the kind words from the physiotherapist. I remember her telling me that if I kept up with the exercises, I would get my life back.” (Jhonatan Andres Ibarra from Columbia has severe haemophilia A.)12
As in Jhonatan’s case, the best healthcare professionals help PwH address both physical and mental health challenges. However, by learning a few coping mechanisms, PwH need not rely on professionals to help them through things like sadness. Caring for one's own mental health is a skill that can be acquired and self-administered.
For many PwH, the path to mental healing goes via acceptance and understanding.
It helps recognising that there are valid and understandable reasons for mental vulnerability and mental health problems.7 Rule number 1: Being prone to unpleasant and undesirable emotional responses is not a character flaw.
Whether diagnosed with depression or not, anger is a fairly common emotion for many PwH.1 Pain takes people out of their flow and can significantly reduce their quality of life. Therefore, whether a person experiences sporadic or constant pain, it is understandable that it may make them angry.
And let’s not forget that simply living with the knowledge that pain may interrupt at any moment can be stressful and difficult not only for PwH but for their carers and relatives, too.
Another young man living with haemophilia recalls an experience with pain, occurring during a workout session, as a particular unpleasant turning point in his life:
“My ankle became very swollen very fast. I couldn’t walk or even move my toes without agonising pain. … I had never actually felt like a haemophiliac before that day, so when something severe finally happened, I wasn’t prepared for it, I couldn’t help but think – this is the end of my active years.” (Adolf Kroll from Estonia has severe haemophilia A.)12
While at first, the event had mental health consequences (hopelessness, grief and social isolation), Adolf was eventually able to overcome his mental health challenges and regain his appetite for life.
It may be helpful to realise that, although normal for people with chronic illness, anger is not a constructive emotion. Like depression, it can get in the way of positive things and deprive PwH of the mindset required for living and dreaming big.
But by finding out how to rise above mental health issues, PwH may free up mental energy and use it appropriately – namely for exciting and fulfilling things.7
Before addressing how this may happen, let’s look at a third mental health problem common to PwH.
Feeling anxious is a natural response to the fear of losing something
valuable or cherished. From a mental health perspective, haemophilia
can take on a threatening appearance and may trigger a person’s fear
Aside from these specific loss-related fears, there appears to be an association between chronic pain and anxiety, whether the pain is caused by haemophilia or not.9
As with the other mental health problems discussed here, anxiety may not afflict PwH exclusively. Their relatives and carers can be in need of anxiety-relieving coping mechanism, too.
And again, acceptance and understanding turn out to be part and parcel of promoting and maintaining mental health. One carer, the mother of an infant with haemophilia, writes:
“I knew the only way to deal with this was to learn – learn what to do, learn about this disease. With the help of an incredible medical team my fears and anxieties began to reduce – knowledge really is power!” (Marianna Ilves’ son, Martin, from Estonia, has severe haemophilia A.)12
In thinking about pain, it is natural to assume that the pain has its origin in an affected body part and only later has a compromising effect on the person’s mental health. But in the case of anxiety, the process may actually run in both directions. That is, anxiety has been known to exacerbate (or at least maintain) the pain caused by a physiological issue such as bleed.9
In light of this potentially vicious circle, having a helpful strategy appears even more crucial.
That’s where we’ll go next.
First off, remember that it takes a qualified healthcare professional to diagnose a mental health problem.11 Self-diagnosing is neither advisable nor possible, although one can correctly observe mental health symptoms.
Here are some symptoms indicating different mental health
So how can these interrelated symptoms be addressed?
Let us look at the benefits of MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy), a mental health promoting system recommended by The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and useful in the treatment of chronic pain, depression, anxiety and panic.10
MBCT helps individuals question and reappraise thoughts, feelings and behaviours they have related to their pain.9 Gaining some insight into those is the first step toward putting adaptive and constructive reactions and thoughts in the place of unpleasant and undesirable ones.
While a comprehensive description of MBCT cannot be given here, the
10 tips below may serve to get PwH at least started on addressing
mental health problems:
And remember that everyone is different. Be sure, therefore, to check in with your healthcare professional to discuss how MBCT can benefit YOU.
As with anything valuable and meaningful, resolving a mental health situation is not a quick and easy job. Quite the contrary, it is wise to approach it with humility and patience.
On the other hand, here are some things to be excited about:
To quote an old phrase, the way out is through.
“I have never felt as good
as I feel today – I have lots of friends, I love my job and I truly
feel that limitations, frustrations and fears live only in our
minds.” – Carlos Alberto Rios Rondon from Columbian has haemophilia A12
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