Most of my medical challenges occurred when I was young. Years later, I can’t really remember my feelings after those experiences.
But as I contemplate my recent health scare—a piece of steak lodged in my throat, resulting in a tear in my esophagus—I know that it’s definitely taken an emotional toll on me.
My friends say that I don’t sound like myself now. I’m normally an upbeat, energetic, gregarious person.
Today, I would describe myself as anxious, subdued and fatigued. While I know intellectually that one’s time does not go on forever, now I really feel mortal.
I had been chalking my feelings up to a bit of post-traumatic stress disorder from eight hours of not being able to swallow and ultimately undergoing emergency surgery.
But as I’ve read up on serious health risks that land people in the hospital, it’s quite common for that person’s mental health to suffer after such an experience.
For example, studies have shown more than 40 percent of people who’ve had a stroke experience depression. Figures are high for heart-attack sufferers as well.
Given these statistics, I’m hopeful that individuals who encounter these particular challenges are given information on the relationship between physical and mental health.
But I don’t know if our current healthcare system focuses on the emotional challenges that may occur after a serious health crisis.
Since my hospital discharge, I’ve had two follow-up doctor appointments, one with the surgeon and one with the gastroenterologist.
As one would expect, both focused their questions to me on my ability to swallow and my general physical health.
To both, I mentioned that I was anxious about progressing from soft foods to a normal diet. The doctors assured me I would be back to eating all my usual foods in the near future.
Outside of that snippet of conversation, there was no discussion about my mental well-being—in particular, what I was thinking or feeling as a result of my experience.
I’m fairly confident that at some point I will return to my normal self, but I’m concerned about others who’ve had serious health scares and also might have trouble bouncing back psychologically.
There’s an excellent resource from the Australian Healthcare & Hospitals Association called “Coping with a serious health event: How to keep mentally well.” This booklet documents the emotional journey that occurs after such an event and explains how to cope with feelings that may arise. Find it at resources.beyondblue.org.au/prism/file?token=BL/1052.
It’s important for everyone who experiences a health challenge, as well as their friends and family, to be aware of the connection between physical and mental health and to seek support if depression or anxiety becomes a problem. Help is out there.