“I told you I was ill!” ~ why those with mental health struggles can die before their time.
Spike Milligan famously had those words (in Gaelic and in English) put upon his gravestone. His life had been affected most profoundly by what was then referred to as manic depression and is now usually called bi-polar disorder. He once complained that the lithium that stabilised his moods had also flattened out his creativity but those who take lithium are obliged to have regular blood tests as lithium toxicity http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithium_(medication) can occur and patients with bipolar disorder who are receiving long-term lithium treatment are at increased risk for hyperparathyroidism. Elevated calcium levels are found in 15% to 20% of patients who have been taking lithium long-term. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hyperparathyroidism
There are few treatments for any disorder that do not carry side effects and risks and most people weight up the potential benefits of taking a medication with the potential risks. But it’s not just medications that can create problems. As many folks discover, once you have a mental health history writ large on your medical records, it can be very difficult to get the average general practitioner to look beyond it.
Since mental health problems produce some very physical symptoms, the temptation is for a doctor to assume that any new symptoms are the result of your mental health distress.
Here are a few of the common problems experienced by those with the simplest (HA bloody HA!) of mental health challenges, unipolar depression:
Headaches. These are fairly common in people with depression. If you already had migraine headaches, they may seem worse if you’re depressed.
Back pain. If you already suffer with back pain, it may be worse if you become depressed.
Muscle aches and joint pain. Depression can make any kind of chronic pain worse.
Chest pain. Obviously, it’s very important to get chest pain checked out by an expert right away. It can be a sign of serious heart, stomach, lung or other problems. But depression can contribute to the discomfort associated with chest pain.
Digestive problems. You might feel queasy or nauseated. You might have diarrhea or become chronically constipated.
Exhaustion and fatigue. No matter how much you sleep, you may still feel tired or worn out. Getting out of the bed in the morning may seem very hard, even impossible.
Sleeping problems. Many people with depression can’t sleep well any more. They wake up too early or can’t fall asleep when they go to bed. Others sleep much more than normal.
Change in appetite or weight. Some people with depression lose their appetite and lose weight. Others find they crave certain foods — like carbohydrates — and weigh more.
Dizziness or light-headedness.
Now take a swift glance at the list of symptoms here:
You will see that there are many symptoms in common. If you have been following this blog for a long while you may remember a post I wrote last year, following a total meltdown on my birthday: https://zenandtheartoftightropewalking.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/why-daffodils-became-the-last-straw-metaphors-that-strike-to-the-heart/ Subsequent to this my doctor sent me to have some blood tests, and they came back with raised calcium levels. Second test, they had fallen. I was to have had a third test but we moved house and I forgot about it. This year, after my other diagnosis, I was getting a slowly worsening pain on my left side, under the ribs, and I went back to the doctor, who sent me for blood tests. High calcium again, then another test, which brought back high levels of parathyroid hormone. I’ve now seen an endocrinologist and am waiting for a date for surgery.
When I first went to see my GP back in March, he listened impatiently to my list of woes, glanced at the computer screen and said dismissively, “Oh it’s JUST depression,” and began to bang out a prescription. I had to fight to get him to refer me to a rheumatologist, who spotted what was up with my body and I am being helped now for that issue. I swapped to another GP, following this and the new chap has been excellent.
But let me say this: the second condition was going to kill me without treatment. It is far from the only condition that has depression AS A SYMPTOM,, and having depression does not preclude a patient from having other life-threatening or life-limiting conditions. I believe that this state of affairs stems from an ingrained, almost unconscious belief that runs through our society that those with mental health challenges are actually weak, attention-seeking losers who are not worth listening to and who are to blame for ALL their own health issues.