The complexity of illnesses such as MS means that a multidimensional approach to treating MS and managing symptoms is crucial. In addition to the well-known symptoms of MS, people can also be affected by psychological and social challenges that can have a large impact on quality of life and day to day functioning.
In a recent study published in the International Journal of MS Carefrom researchers at the Kessler Institute in the USA, the benefits of an intervention aimed at improving psychosocial well-being were compared against standard care. People with MS can be affected by mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, in addition to cognitive difficulties, and stress. Psychosocial therapies can be a valuable addition in the management of MS, by targeting these aspects of illness that may not be improved by medications.
In the current study, the researchers trialled a new type of psychosocial intervention aiming to promote coping and teach strategies to enhance quality of living, with sessions on daily life pressures, communication and social support, vocational challenges, and symptom management alongside ongoing medical treatment. Sessions were delivered in a group setting aiming to encourage peer support.
Fifty-four people with MS participated in the study, of whom 43 were allocated to the intervention group and 11 people who continued treatment as usual (the control group). Over a ten week period, the participants answered questionnaires about their mental health (depression and anxiety), perceived stress levels, cognitive difficulties, generalised pain levels, social support, and fatigue levels.
At the end of the ten week program, the researchers found that those who received the psychosocial intervention had significantly lower levels of depression, anxiety, and perceived stress. They also found reductions in the level of perceived pain, which were found to be correlated with the severity of depression. There were no benefits of the intervention for improving fatigue or cognitive abilities; however, the program was not specifically designed to train cognitive skills. The researchers found that approximately half of the individuals who had previously met diagnostic criteria for depression, no longer showed signs of clinical depression following the treatment.
Although this study has some drawbacks, particularly that the participants in the trial were not randomly allocated into the two study groups, this is the first controlled trial to study this type of wellness program. The findings support further development of integrated psychosocial therapies and further study will help to determine the long-term benefits of this type of MS-specific therapy and how it compares to other evidence-based psychological therapies for treating depression and anxiety.