Stigmatized MS Patients Have Increased Risk of Depression, Study Reveals

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multiple sclerosis

A study on multiple sclerosis patients reveals a person’s increased risk of depression may be linked to the stigma of having the disease. However, if a patient has a support system, self-sufficiency and camaraderie these symptoms may be lessened, according to a Penn State study.

Multiple sclerosis symptoms include depression slurred speech, numbness, impaired vision and loss of balance, among many others.

While depression is the most common mood disorder for people with MS, it was not understood why depression rates were so high.  However, this study reveals that a patient who feels more stigmatized exhibits more symptoms of depression.

50 Percent of People with MS will have Depression During their Lifetime

“About 50 percent of people with MS will have depression during their lifetime compared to 17 percent of the general public, but the causes of these high rates of depression in MS are not well understood,” said Margaret Cadden, lead author of the study.

The study helped identify the stigma of MS a social contributor to depression.

According to the National Institute of Health, social stigmas can contribute to a person’s decline in health. These factors include: social status, sense of belonging and adequate support.

“Research suggests that having a chronic illness can make people feel isolated, separated and judged,” Cadden said. “People living with MS know that they have a disease that’s currently incurable, and that often brings a host of symptoms that may contribute to people becoming stigmatized.”

The data was collected from 5,369 MS patients who participated in the semi-annual North American Research Committee on Multiple Sclerosis survey.

Survey participants were asked different questions about their physical activity, smoking and degree of impairment.

The Relationship Between Stigma and Depression

Researchers were able to look at the relationship between stigma and depression longitudinally.

“Very little research on stigma, in general, and chronic illnesses like MS in particular, has examined the consequences of stigma over time. By testing how stigma affects depression longitudinally, we’re better able to separate out cause and effect,” said Jonathan Cook, assistant professor of psychology, Penn State, and the study’s senior author.

Data found that 78 percent of the participants were women, 68 percent were unemployed and 45 percent had Associates, Technical or Bachelor’s degrees.

How to Combat Multiple Sclerosis and Depression

That being said, the study also found that a strong sense of independence and close relationships could help patients to less likely feel depressed.

“We found that people with greater psychosocial reserve — that is, their sense of having a support network and a sense of belonging, and being able to advocate for their needs — were less affected by stigma,” said Cook. “They were less likely to be depressed, even if they experienced stigma.”

The Penn State study findings may also illuminate the role stigma plays for others who are suffering from other conditions, where personal responsibility is not involved.

“Personal responsibility is thought to intensify stigma,” Cook said. “Research on stigma from chronic illness has often focused on conditions like HIV and lung cancer, where stigma can be based in part on people’s sense that the illness might have been prevented. So, there is a perspective where you might wonder how much stigma would be a problem for people living with MS. And the reality we’re finding is that it is an issue, and that it worsens depression.”

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