People with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus are likely to be struggling with their mental health, a new study reveals.

Latest research has identified an ‘alarming’ number of mental health problems amongst individuals with chronic illnesses.

Even though the prevalence of poor mental health is high in people living with autoimmune conditions, they are rarely asked about their emotional wellbeing during check-up appointments.

According to the study, those with a chronic illness are likely to experience depression, hallucinations, fatigue and anxiety.

Scientists from the University of Cambridge and King’s College London discovered that most people with a chronic illness who are struggling with their mental health avoid telling a healthcare professional about their emotional wellbeing.

During the study, the team of researchers looked at the neurological and psychiatric symptoms of 1,853 adults living with a systemic autoimmune rheumatic disease (SARD).

In addition, the scientists surveyed a variety of different clinicians, including psychiatrists, neurologists and rheumatologists.

They found that more than 50% of the participants with a SARD experience feelings of depression and anxiety.

Nearly 90% of the group felt fatigued and 70% of the participants experienced cognitive decline, the study has reported.

The results show that the clinicians were surprised and concerned by the high level of mental health problems in people with chronic illnesses.

King’s College London researcher Dr Tom Pollak said: “We have known for some time that having a systemic autoimmune disease can negatively affect one’s mental health, but this study paints a startling picture of the breadth and impact of these symptoms.

“Everyone working in healthcare with these patients should routinely ask about mental wellbeing, and patients should be supported to speak up without fear of judgment. No patient should suffer in silence.”

A rheumatology nurse who was surveyed during the study said: “Doctors don’t go looking for it (hallucinations]), so if we don’t ask, we don’t think it exists much.”

People with chronic illnesses were afraid to report their mental health problems due to the fear of being stigmatised.

Additionally, individuals with autoimmune conditions who have reported mental health complications feel like they have not been offered the right level of care.

A participant said: “Feel guilty and useless as well as depressed and very unwell. I don’t really feel supported, understood, listened to, hopeful at all. It is awful living like this. All just feels hopeless.”

Melanie Sloan, from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge, noted: “The low level of reporting we identified is a major concern as problems with mental health, fatigue and cognition can be life-changing, and sometimes life-threatening.”

Chief Executive of the British Society for Rheumatology, Sarah Campbell said: “This study highlights the urgent need for improvements in the access patients have to integrated mental health support.

“Given what the study finds on the prevalence of this issue and the deep impact neurological and psychiatric symptoms have on patients, it should be of grave concern to policymakers that only 8% of rheumatology departments in England and Wales have a psychologist embedded in their team.”

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