Living with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is not easy. Adapting to the repeated changes and losses that can accompany RA and learning emotional coping skills takes time. But you don’t have to do it on your own. Getting help from a mental health professional at any point during your journey with RA can make it easier.
RA and mental health
Being diagnosed with RA often triggers a grieving process as you mourn the healthy you and work toward acceptance of your situation. Depression is part of that process and can be exacerbated by a variety of factors, including how active your disease is. In fact, up to 42 percent of people with RA experience depressive disorder, which in turn can have a negative impact on your physical health. In addition, in people with RA who are depressed, a full 30 percent report thinking about suicide. Anxiety and depression are often connected, and both tend to reduce as your RA becomes better controlled.
That said, it’s quite common for people with RA to experience episodic depression and anxiety, especially related to their condition getting worse and experiencing high pain levels.
Mental health providers can help
A number of different mental health providers can offer help in a variety of ways as you learn to adjust and cope with RA.
Usually, your family doctor will be involved in prescribing medication for depression or anxiety related to your RA. If your emotional health issues are severe, you might also see a psychiatrist or mental health nurse.
If you’re looking for counseling services to process what’s happened and to develop or strengthen your coping skills, you can choose a number of different mental health practitioners. A psychologist is usually trained in providing a particular type of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to be effective for helping people with chronic illness.
You may also want to consult a social worker, who can offer short-term counseling, as well as assistance with connecting you to community resources. Support programs and peer counseling may also be available in your area and can give you the additional benefit of connecting with others like you. Your religious leader may also have qualifications in counseling.
Finding a mental health provider
Your family doctor is usually a good place to start your search for emotional help. They should be able to refer you to mental health services. Your rheumatologist may also be able to connect you with someone who can help.
You can also go looking on your own. Psychology Today provides a service where you can look up psychiatrists, therapists, support programs, and peer counseling in the United States and a number of other countries.
Other resources that can direct you toward counseling and support groups include your insurance provider, the local chapters of The Arthritis Foundation and Mental Health America, your company’s employee assistance program, Medicare, or Medicaid.
Paying for mental health care
Seeing a therapist or counselor can be expensive. Check with your insurance provider to see whether mental health services are covered in your plan. If not, you do have other options to get the help that you need to cope with the emotional challenges of RA.
You can find a free clinic through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources or the Partnership for Prescription Assistance. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) can also refer you to a local program, and you can also find a community mental health center in your area.
Connecting with others who live with RA can be very valuable in terms of feeling less isolated and, quite frankly, normal. There’s something uniquely empowering and comforting in knowing that the person you’re speaking to knows exactly how you feel. The online RA community can be incredibly supportive. Look for Facebook groups for people with rheumatoid or autoimmune arthritis, participate in the RAHealthCentral community on our Facebook page, and connect to others on Twitter by using the hashtags #rheum or #rheumatoidarthritis.
What to do if you are in crisis
If you feel completely lost in a severe flare, a condition that doesn’t respond to medication, or any other issues that can come with RA, you might start thinking that there’s no point to going on. As I mentioned above, a fair number of people with RA may experience being in a very dark place. Please seek help. If you are feeling suicidal, there are several places that can help you for free:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — call 1-800-273-8255. If you need services for the deaf and hard of hearing, visit their website.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness — call their HelpLine at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or text NAMI to 741741.
You should also reach out to family doctor or your rheumatologist. If your RA is contributing to severe depression or suicidal thoughts, you need help with that condition, as well. In such a situation, it’s very likely that treatment to better control your RA will also improve your emotional health.