Stroke survivors struggle with mental health difficulties

By June Shannon Stroke News   |   10th Oct 2018

On World Mental Health Day (Wednesday, 10 October) the Irish Heart Foundation highlights the mental health impact of stroke.  

Mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety are common post stroke affecting up to 50 per cent of stroke survivors, a leading expert in stroke medicine has said.

According to Professor Joe Harbison, Former HSE Clinical Lead for Stroke, Associate Professor of Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin (TCD) and recently appointed board member of the Irish Heart Foundation, anxiety and or depression may affect up to 50 per cent of stroke patients, while other forms of psychological distress such as severe worry and grief can affect up to 70 per cent of people post stroke.

Cognitive impairment such as memory loss, poor attention and behavioural changes are also common after a stroke.

Prof Harbison explained that the symptoms of depression and anxiety post stroke can present in the classical way with low mood, or less typically as a high level of health-related anxiety. Health related anxiety, where a person worries a lot about their health, can produce real physical symptoms such as aches and pains and this reinforce the anxiety of being unwell.

“We need more psychological supports including appointing additional psychologists and resource for support groups,”

Prof Joe Harbison, Board Member, Irish Heart Foundation

Mental health difficulties post stroke can affect anyone of any age or gender and are most common between three- and six-months post stroke, however, Prof Harbison said they could occur at any stage.

The mental health problems people experience post stroke can be caused due to the changes taking place in the brain because of the stroke itself,  but can also happen due to the massive psychological impact a stroke can have on a person’s life.

“Some strokes e.g. in the brain stem or frontal lobes can trigger emotional lability or low mood. The impact of a major life event like a stroke can also be traumatic and there can be an associated grieving reaction in patients and their families through change of circumstances and lost independence. There can also be anxiety related to work or financial issues,” Prof Harbison explained.

Asked what stroke patients can do if they are experiencing mental health difficulties, Prof Harbison said this was a challenge as there was a great shortage of psychology support for stroke patients. However, he suggested that people contact their GP or there are a number of organisations that can help such as Headway Ireland, which provides psychological support and counselling for people with an acquired brain injury including stroke.

Prof Harbison said, “Local Stroke groups are great for peer support. The can talk to their GPs or Headway will provide some support.”

“We need more psychological supports including appointing additional psychologists and resource for support groups,” he added.

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anxiety depression mental health psychology stroke

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