Mental Health Monday–Coping with Illness


Linda Gray asks the following question:

When a person has the possibility of inherited life-threatening disease hanging over her head, and the parent (mother) who may have passed it along to her has died from it, what type of person (character traits) can stand up to that situation with courage and the ability/determination to do whatever possible to live a full life, as opposed to living in dread of developing the disease and dying from it, too?

This is a FANTASTIC question!

Let me reference a particular illness that has physical and psychiatric complications and is heritable (passed down from generation to generation).

HUNTINGTON’S DISEASE is a neurodegenerative disorder with cognitive, psychiatric, and physical symptoms. It is autosomal dominant (which means 50% offspring inherit the disease). It’s particularly tragic because symptoms often develop AFTER childbearing years, so the disease can be unwittingly passed on to the next generation.

It can cause memory disturbance, dementia, psychosis, depression, irritability, and can/does affect muscular coordination. In fact, people develop what’s called “chorea,” which is an abnormal, involuntary, writhing movement of the limbs and torso. Progression can vary, but it often leads to such significant impairment that the person can’t care for themselves and need nursing home level of care.

Genetic testing is available if someone wants to find out if they have inherited the gene. Counseling and education is strongly advised (to help the person cope with the possibility of getting bad news).

This would be devastating news for anyone to hear and certainly a person’s personality makeup has a huge impact on how they handle it. Too many factors go into personality development to predict for certain, but upbringing (caring and nurturing vs cold and neglectful or abusive), experiences (witnessing a parent/loved one go through the disease process), genes (more information is learned daily about the heritability of mental illness and various temperments), and coping skills all play a roll.

Now, every human being on the planet has experienced adversity, suffering, etc. BUT, HOW WE COPE WITH IT CAN MAKE ALL THE DIFFERENCE. Therefore, I’d posit that someone with strong coping skills (such as having good problem solving strategies) who is facing a potentially life-altering or life-threatening disease can have a “better” response to such news than someone with poor coping skills (such as having poor problem solving strategies).

Coping skills vary widely. Some people turn to obsessive thinking, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, yelling, breaking things, cutting, or suicide attempts/gestures. Others turn to talking with others, exercising, asking for help, building a support network, and relying on religion or another method of devloping inner peace (like meditation).

Now it’s your turn. What factors would help or hurt someone when dealing with devastating medical news?

Remember, these posts are for WRITING PURPOSES ONLY and are not intended for medical advice or treatment.

Please don’t hesitate to ask a #MentalHealthMonday question if you need a character “shrink-wrapped.” 😉

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15 comments on “Mental Health Monday–Coping with Illness

  1. That was a good question! I remember one of the characters on House had inherited that disease.

  2. salarsen says:

    Such an amazing post! I am a firm believer that one’s attitude can be a positive or negative driving force. I’m in a unique position. My mother suffers from MS, while my mother-in-law suffers from Lupus. Both woman are wonderful, but my MIL handles and faces her adversities with such positiveness which I believe has kept her more healthy then my mom.

  3. roguemutt says:

    I’d definitely be screwed because I have horrible coping abilities.

  4. Lydia K says:

    Just deciding whether or not to get testing is already such a huge stress. It changes your life, one way or the other. Great post!

  5. I’m going to take a stab at your question. Traits that might help with devastating news? I can think of no better example than Joseph Gordon Levitt in the movie 50/50 (and his best friend). That’s a great show to highlight the kinds of traits someone has that is capable of dealing with devastating illness. I highly recommend the movie if you haven’t seen it.

  6. E.Arroyo says:

    My mother-in-law is a cancer survivor–11 + years. After I had my baby, my husband and I thought about storage of the umbilical. In the end we didn’t. It did scare me.

  7. Jessica Burde says:

    My mother and aunt both have multiple sclerosis (MS). Similar to Huntington’s it’s a degenerative disorder of the nervous system (MS can effect either the brain or the spinal column and peripheral nerves depending on what version you have).

    The genetic predisposition is relatively mild (something like a 1 in 100 chance of developing it if your mother has MS, less if it’s your father), but I also have two or three of the environmental risk factors. So it’s worrying.

    The most important thing I have noticed, both for myself and for others in my situation, is to be really clear on the difference between what is and what may be.

    ‘What is’ is I am a healthy young woman who has a family, a job and a decent life.

    ‘What maybe’ is I may be developing a degenerative condition.

    For day to day life, I focus on what is, and don’t worry about may be. Focus on the now.

    For long term planning, I keep the maybe in mind, which includes choosing a career (self published author) that if I do well can set up a residual income stream that can help support me if I do become ill and need to reduce the hours I can work. It also includes making plans for early retirement, and keeping aware of the disability/medicare budget debates going on because they could one day affect me.

    There are bad days when I think I’m seeing signs or early symptoms. But they are nothing definitive and the worst thing to do is go to a doc too early and get labelled a hypochondriac. So you just learn to reassure yourself that the clumsiness is probably stress, especially when it happens so rarely, and take care of today. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

  8. Linda Gray says:

    Thank you so much, Laura. This is great information that I can use to build my character credibly. And especially thanks to the commenters who shared their own experience and philosophies. Impressive!!

  9. I recently read a book called “Frameshift” by Robert Sawyer in which the main character has a father with Huntington’s and has to deal with testing himself or not, and have that hanging over his other relationships. It was nicely done in my opinion, but only a part of the main plot. The character is also a geneticist, so there was neat information about that included too.

  10. Kendall Grey says:

    Great info about coping, Laura. I love reading these Mental Health Monday posts!

  11. Wow, what a scary disease! Fascinating topic for writing, though.

  12. Donna Hole says:

    Great question and answer. I would imagine coping skills and support system would go together.

    ……..dhole

  13. lenny says:

    hi dr laura. wow thats pretty scary knowing you got a disease thats not gonna get better. for sure that could take away all your hope. for my luekemia the best thing is all the supports of my family and my friends specially all my blogger friends. its hard knowing what could help cause everyones way different. im thinking you just gotta find what works for you. when you know your characters real good then you could know whats gonna work and not work for them.
    …hugs from lenny

  14. Leigh Moore says:

    What a hard, good question. I agree w/many of the commentators that it all depends on your attitude and frame of mind. Although it’s hard to know what that will look like until you’re faced with the challenge. Good stuff as always, LBD~

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