Mental Health and Pancreas Disease
By Jenny Jones, Pancreatitis Patient Advocate

I started getting sick with pancreatitis when I was in third grade, 9 years old.  This disease impacted me physically and mentally.  I was in excruciating pain, unable to gain weight, feeling alone, misunderstood, and very different.  As a result, I became anxious and depressed.  As a  kid, these mental health issues were overwhelming, and even as an adult, I find it very difficult to handle on a daily basis.

Being a parent with chronic debilitating health conditions, along with mental health issues, is very stressful and all-consuming.   The physical nature of the disease is unpredictable, so it is impossible to know how much energy is available for parenting on a daily basis.  Additionally, the pain, anxiety, and depression are exhausting, making it tough to focus on the needs of my children, as well as be present to them emotionally.  When the pain becomes unbearable to the point I can’t function, I reach out to family or friends to help me with my children.   Depression and anxiety not only impact mood, but it can also alter my thinking and perspective.  In these moments, I must rely on the skills that I’ve acquired through my psychotherapy to have realistic expectations of myself as a wife and mother.

For other patients with chronic pancreatitis, and the accompanying mental health issues, I would say most importantly to take it one day at a time.  Don’t judge yourself.  It’s ok to say you are not ok and reach out for help.  Surround yourself with people who know that mental health issues are real, and they are willing to talk about them.  Be willing to admit that the day might not be a good one and it may be difficult just to make it out of bed.  When those days come, do whatever you need to get through it; say an extra prayer, reach out to a friend or family member just to talk, dress better to feel better, exercise, or say some affirmations.  Pay close attention to what you are feeding yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally, including such things as unplugging from social media, eating cleaner and being mindful of self-talk.  Celebrate little daily successes and celebrate yourself.  Always remember that mental health and chronic illness fit together like a hand and glove.  If you don’t take care of one, the other suffers, so it’s important to tend to both issues.

For family members, take the time to read about the disease.  When your loved one is sharing their experience, make sure you are listening to understand, rather than listening to respond.  Don’t try to fix it or minimize it.  Everybody has a unique experience, and it is very important you don’t assume you understand and know what they are going through.  Be open-minded, compassionate, and empathetic.

The fact that we are having this conversation, and that if you google African American and mental health – many links come up, means we are stepping in the right direction of progress.  In the last decade, I think much more attention has been brought to mental health in the Black community, and I’m very happy about it.