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Mental health matters in arthritis

Mental health matters in arthritis

Why this research matters

People with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) are twice as likely to suffer from depression compared to the general population. Even though depression and anxiety affect pain, the ability to complete daily tasks, and quality of life, these mental health issues are often underdiagnosed and undertreated in arthritis patiens.

What is this research about? 

The physical effects of arthritis are undeniable and devastating. However, arthritis also has a complex relationship with mental health. Having arthritis may lead to depression or anxiety, and in turn, depression and anxiety can worsen arthritis. Dr. Mary De Vera is studying the impact of depression and anxiety in people with RA to improve the lives of people with arthritis and raise awareness of this important matter. 

Photography of Dr. Mary DeVeraWhat did the researchers do? 

The researchers analyzed two discussion boards, "r/Thritis" and "r/Rheumatoid", on Reddit, a popular social news and discussion website where individuals anonymously ask questions, post opinions and share experiences. The objective was to understand the experiences of people with RA regarding their mental health.  

What did they find?  

The researchers identified four discussion themes: 1) Navigating the management of RA explores how the physical impacts of the disease, lack of health resources and support, and the complexity of medications affect mental health; 2) Experiencing impact on relationships and social isolation includes dealing with misconceptions of RA, feeling misunderstood and feeling guilt; 3) Experiencing loss touches on the helplessness brought by challenges with performing self-defining activities such as self-care, work, and childbearing/parenting; and 4) Experiencing emotional struggles captures how tension between pushing through and despair has led some to suicide ideation and thoughts of death. The findings emphasize the close relationship between the symptoms of RA, the management of those symptoms, and the negative effects on mental health. 

How can this research be used?  

This research highlights the importance of online communities and forums for people with RA to discuss mental health experiences and seek advice and support. The discussions in these communities may help to uncover how RA impacts mental health and the interactions between physical, social and emotional experiences.  

Photography of Pamela Butvin
Living with rheumatoid arthritis also means living with anxiety about how inflammation and the medication that controls it can potentially impact eye, organ and overall systemic health of your body. Reaching out to others through online communities helps because by accepting my condition, I learned how others manage living with a chronic condition and I don't feel alone. "

— Pamela Butvin, Arthritis Society Online Consumer Panel Member

What impact could this have?   

New insights into factors like family planning, feelings of not being understood and guilt, provide opportunities for healthcare providers to support the mental health of their patients with RA. Addressing both the physical and mental health challenges of managing RA could meaningfully improve the quality of life of the 300,000 Canadians with this disease. 

About the researcher 

Dr. Mary De Vera is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia and a scientist at Arthritis Research Canada. Her research has been supported in part by an Arthritis Society Strategic Operating Grant awarded in 2018, focused on a pioneering study mapping the connections between arthritis, medication use and mental health. 

Publication citation 

Park JYE, Howren AM, Davidson E, De Vera MA. Insights on mental health when living with rheumatoid arthritis: A descriptive qualitative study of threads on the Reddit website. BMC Rheumatol. 2020;4(1):62. 

Research at the Arthritis Society

Through the trust and support of our donors and partners, the Arthritis Society is Canada’s largest charitable funder of cutting-edge arthritis research, investing over $220 million in research projects since our founding. These projects have led to breakthroughs in the diagnosis, treatment and care of people with arthritis. Visit us at arthritis.ca/research