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New research shines spotlight on mental health and arthritis

20:00 EDT 21 Aug 2017 | Arthritis Research UK

Arthritis Today Summer 2017 Issue 173An older lady looking out of a window at the rainAround a third of the 400,000 people in the UK with rheumatoid arthritis also experience mental health issues. Statistics like these clearly show arthritis does not just affect people’s physical health. Without the right treatment and support the pain and fatigue of rheumatoid arthritis can take its toll on our minds, as well as our bodies.

We want this to change and for the mental health issues associated with arthritis to be taken seriously, recognised early and treated effectively. We've forged a new partnership with mental health research charity MQ: Transforming Mental Health to support vital research in this area.

The two charities have come together to jointly fund an early research career fellowship, awarded to Dr Sam Norton, a lecturer at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at the Department of Rheumatology at King’s College London. During the three-year study, evidence from the last 30 years will be reviewed to find out if the prevalence of mental health issues in people with rheumatoid arthritis has changed over time.

The research team will look at factors that might indicate a person is at greater risk of developing mental health issues and explore how best to identify and support these patients from the time they are diagnosed. Dr Norton explains: "It’s vital we take a whole person approach to the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. Nowadays we're good at quickly getting people onto medication that controls their inflammation. However, many patients experience continued symptoms of pain and fatigue, despite the inflammation being controlled."It’s vital we take a whole person approach to the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis."Dr Sam Norton

"This often, and understandably, has a knock-on effect on mental health. People get frustrated, they may have to give up work or stop doing what they enjoy with friends and family because of their symptoms. This level of impact on quality of life means it’s not surprising to see comparatively high rates of mental health issues among people with rheumatoid arthritis."

Getting the right help at the right time

For this to change, and for people with rheumatoid arthritis to get timely and effective treatment for their mental as well as physical health, there's a lot of work to be done to raise awareness of the impact arthritis has on mental health. That’s why the research findings will be used to inform and support healthcare professionals, through the creation of an app to help them to track symptoms and identify people with rheumatoid arthritis who have, or are at risk of developing, mental health problems.

Dr Norton says: "We want to make sure every single person with rheumatoid arthritis that needs mental health support is getting the right help at the right time. To achieve this, we must equip healthcare professionals with the specialist information and tools to spot those people who are flying under the radar, but might struggle with their mental health.

"When it comes to our minds, as well as our bodies, early intervention gets the best results so it’s important we support people as soon as they're diagnosed. We can’t just treat the inflammation and only think about mental health further down the line when problems have already developed. Whether it’s through counselling or physiotherapy, helping people who want to stay in work or encouraging positive lifestyle changes, there’s a wide range of support we can offer to help people manage their own mental health."

"This funding from Arthritis Research UK and MQ is making a real difference to a notoriously under-funded research area. It’s allowing me to highlight the need for an integrated approach to treating arthritis and mental health, driving forward much-needed progress."

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