Mental health is a part of everyone's life, just like physical health. Living with arthritis, physical health can fluctuate – some days you will feel better than others. Mental health is the same, and some people diagnosed with chronic conditions like arthritis may deal with mental health fluctuations on an ongoing basis, or may also have a chronic mental illness. For young people with arthritis, depression, stress and anxiety may be more common because of the challenges of living with arthritis. In fact, research shows that teens with juvenile idiopathic arthritis (JIA) more commonly showed depressive symptoms compared to teens without chronic health conditions. But living with arthritis doesn’t have to mean poor mental health. There are self-management strategies and treatments available to help you take control of your mental wellness. Read on for more information.
Living with arthritis as a young adult means that chronic physical health concerns can impact mental health as well. This can result from:
- Dealing with joint pain and fatigue
- Transitioning to adult medical care
- Changing school and work environments
- Having to reassess or adjust career goals
- Starting and thriving in an independent life
- Not being able to join friends in physical activities or travel
- Personal expectations around energy levels and ability
The challenges that youth with arthritis face could become magnified as they become adults and take on new responsibilities. That’s why it’s important for young adults to pay attention to their mental health needs and learn about ways to manage any mental health concerns. Developing mental health coping strategies earlier on in life can also be advantageous, to adopt more open and healthier approaches to managing challenges throughout their lives.
Depression and Stress
Coping with arthritis and its symptoms can sometimes lead young people to develop low self-esteem or impact their perception of themselves. This is because they may not be able to do the things their peers are doing, might have difficulty explaining their condition, or might be dealing with the stigma of having a chronic illness. Young adults with arthritis have reported that this has led to feeling sad or hopeless, losing interest in normal daily activities, trouble sleeping or focusing, irritability and more. All of these can be signs and symptoms of depression. Some may be related to your arthritis symptoms or your medications, or they may even be a combination of these with the changes in your life mentioned above. Depression can sometimes also go hand-in-hand with stress.
Stress is your body’s reaction to pressure, either from yourself (wanting to succeed, wanting to fit in or feel “normal”) or from outside influences (work, school, friends, romantic partners). These pressures are called “stressors” and they impact your stress reaction. When stressors exceed your ability to cope with them, stress can affect your physical and mental well-being. Teens and young adults may say they don’t have much stress, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Stress may just not be on their radar and could be impacting their body without them knowing. It takes time (and some intentional skill building) to become aware of and give special attention to stress (and depression) to determine how your body reacts.
There are many mental health care providers, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, psychotherapists and social workers, that can help with mental health concerns. If you’re interested in finding out who might be best for you, it can be useful to start with talking to your doctor. Your community, workplace, college or university may also have mental health services available to you. You can learn more about the different types of mental health care in our “Understanding the Field” resource.
Many health care professionals can help you with managing the stressors and concerns of young adulthood, from transitioning care to dealing with new expenses to starting your adult life. All of these are challenges that can be made more difficult with arthritis as well. Your family doctor is a good place to start to find the support you need, or you can look online at ementalhealth.ca for services in your area.
You can also play a role in your mental health care by finding activities that help you cope. This can include mindfulness meditation, exercise, changing eating habits or just seeking out friends or family to talk to. The Arthritis Society’s online Guide to Mental Health & Well-Being can help you learn strategies to look after your mental health.
Another way to manage your mental health is to set clear goals around how you’ll look after yourself, take control of your arthritis, and consider all aspects of your health in your day-to-day life. That might sound like a tall order with everything else you’ve got going on, but goal setting can make it easier.
Establishing a SMART goal is a useful way to create realistic goals. SMART is an acronym, standing for:
- Specific – The goal should be clear and have an outcome
- Measurable – You can track your progress and stay motivated
- Attainable – This goal is possible and realistic
- Relevant – This goal will help me in a meaningful way
- Timely – There is a deadline to reach this goal
Perhaps you want to increase your physical activity to help keep your joints moving and improve your mood, especially with lots of sitting in a new job or during long days of studying. A SMART goal you could set might look like this:
“In order to stay moving and active (specific), I will add at least 60 minutes of exercise to my week (measurable) through walking, swimming or practicing the exercises my physiotherapist gave me (attainable). Reaching this goal will help me counteract the effects of sitting too much and help me improve my mood when I’m feeling down (relevant). I will reach this goal in eight weeks (timely).”
While not every mental health challenge can be solved with goal setting, managing your busy life and your arthritis can be made a little easier with SMART goals.
If you want to learn more about mental health and arthritis, visit our Mental Health page.