Low self-esteem, depression and anxiety are the mental health problems that many people living with pain, fatigue and stiffness caused by rheumatoid arthritis experience. Pain is a significant barrier to people living full and active lives. Pain affects every aspect of a person’s life; from moving around in our homes to sleeping well, from going to work to taking part in activities like tramping and dancing.

29-year-old Laura from Wellington was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis (RA) in 2012, which makes her one of more than 100,000 people with RA in New Zealand.  Laura lives with a disease that restricts her movement and cripples her with fatigue. RA has caused Laura to struggle socially, experiencing feelings of being left out or wanting to keep up with her peers but not physically able to do so. 

Laura has experienced mental health problems caused by the pain, fatigue and stiffness from rheumatoid arthritis.

“There have been many times I couldn’t join my friends on walks, tramping trips or ski trips, even keeping up with my music. I used to play the Trombone until my fingers and wrists swelled and lost strength. I couldn’t bear the weight of the instrument anymore, so reluctantly passed my horn on to another lover of brass.”

Finding the right medication is also a challenge for many people with arthritis. Laura has been on medications that worked and then stopped working, medications that cause severe flare-ups.

“During a flare, I battled to pull socks on and off, brush my hair, sleep, turn door handles, operate light switches – anything that involves even small strength.  These physical battles started to give me severe anxiety, negative self-worth, depression, all of which made me struggle to keep a positive mindset.”

When working in full-time employment while in chronic pain is a challenge, Laura wishes that she could have the personal space she needs to cope. “Some people try to be supportive; however, it’s tough when you’re in constant pain. Someone might ask ‘are you in pain today?’ which in itself is not a helpful question, and enough to start the tears and send me to a bathroom to compose myself. We are all different, and respond differently to life’s challenges, but I think we need to consider how we address those around us that are coping with physical pain. Perhaps just looking for practical ways you can help that person.”

Laura says she is lucky to have support from her partner of 13 years. Arthritis has taught her patience, humility and helped her develop a deeper understanding of chronic illnesses.

“I wish I could say that I do well to present myself as a confident young woman who takes everything in my stride, however, in reality, it’s a mess of emotions and a lot of mental strain. I guess my condition has taught me to chin up, listen to each feeling and ride it out – one day at a time. “

“Arthritis New Zealand has been a big help too. I find the website incredibly helpful, have attended an evening workshop in Wellington, and have partaken in the online Facebook weekly discussions. I would love to see more events hosted outside of working hours so that I could attend more of them. So many RA sufferers are still in the working-age bracket, and I think that is easily an invisible figure, as often RA is an invisible condition.”

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