New tool to help Multiple Sclerosis patients with mental health challenges

The use of mindfulness, a type of meditation that focuses on being intensely aware of senses and feelings in the moment, has been shown to have benefits for patients newly diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), according to findings by a hospital research team from Lawson Health Research Institute.

A diagnosis of MS can be a highly stressful event for the patient and their family due to the long list of unknowns that come with this lifelong neurological disease that has no cure. The majority of people diagnosed with MS are women between the ages of 20 and 40, and many experience mental health complications such as depression and anxiety. However, it’s not just women getting diagnosed at a young age.

28-year-old Mitchell Kuska was diagnosed with MS shortly after his 26th birthday. “I went from being a young 26-year-old doing regular things, to having to learn about this disease and everything that goes along with it and how it will affect my life,” says Kuska who is an avid cyclist. “I love cycling, working out and running. I am a very physically active person, and to know that I might not be able to do that someday is really scary.”

Neurologist and Lawson Associate Scientist Dr. Sarah Morrow says that MS isn’t just a physical disease, but there are many other challenges and symptoms for patients. “It can be a stressful time for people as they have just been diagnosed with a chronic neurological disease that will last the rest of their life.” Dr. Morrow is also the Director of the London MS Clinic at London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC). “They don’t know what will happen next. Will they be disabled? When will the next relapse happen? It can cause a lot of worry and stress, and we see a majority of patients with MS experience mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.”

The research study was conducted by recruiting 24 newly diagnosed relapsing MS (RMS) patients from LHSC, with half undergoing mindfulness treatment while the others acted as a control group. Those in the treatment group took part in ten sessions from the Mindfulness Without Borders program.

Kuska was one of the study participants and says learning mindfulness as a tool in her MS journey has made a positive difference in his mental health. “For me, the scariest part has been the uncertainty and not knowing what the future holds for me. During the treatment as part of the study, I did notice myself being more mindful of my symptoms. I was more in tune with myself and I felt the mindfulness helped me get into the right mindset to start dealing with MS.”

The study which was conducted with two separate session groups showed promising results specifically in treating depression. “Immediately after the sessions when we compared the two groups, those in the mindfulness were reporting better coping skills and less perceived stress, and their symptoms of depression had been reduced,” adds Dr. Morrow.

Following these initial findings published in Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders, the London research team plans to examine them in a larger study. They are also working to examine if the use of mindfulness would be helpful for people who are in the more progressive stages of MS.