A diagnosis of hepatitis C often comes with more than just an infection. There can be psychological tolls, too. When you get it, you may fear what other people think of you, or you may deal with negative reactions to your diagnosis. This stress can lead to mental health problems. In fact, one-third of people with hepatitis C experience depression.
But there is hope. You can control and treat hepatitis C with your current treatment options. Besides these treatments, you can find support that improves your mental stress.
Understanding the stigma
Like many health conditions, hepatitis C is not well understood by the public, leading to stereotypes and assumptions.
“There are times when hepatitis C is more prevalent in the news because of a problem like the opioid crisis, and as a result, when the average person hears someone who has hepatitis C, they automatically think, ‘Oh, that’s hooked,'” says Wendy Tyre, Ph.D. A clinical psychologist at the University of California, San Diego Health, specializes in treating chronic diseases.
Although the main way to get hepatitis C is through sharing needles while using illegal drugs, there are many other ways to get it as well. These include blood transfusions, organ transplants, tattooing or piercing with a contaminated instrument, or exposure in a healthcare setting.
Even if others know how you got infected, another common reaction is fear that they will pass you on. When retired nurse Laurie Smith, 73, contracted hepatitis C from a needle prick at work, some of her family members kept their distance.
“I was asked not to eat from the plates or drink from the cups at some family gatherings,” she says. “Even after 6 months of clearing my arm of the infection, some family members are still wary of me.”
But hepatitis C is not like a cold or the flu. You won’t get it just by being around someone who has it, or from drinking and eating after them. You can only get it if infected blood enters your bloodstream. Even having sex with someone who has hepatitis C lowers the risk of infection.
Who you talk to about your injury is up to you. But when you decide to have a conversation, it’s a good idea to have the facts right.
“I’m a huge proponent of making the patient an advocate and expert in their own condition and then educating their support system about the condition,” says Tayer.
Some information you can have ready:
- Hepatitis C is curable.
- It often causes no symptoms.
- The risk of passing it on to others is very low.
Even with the facts, you cannot control the reactions of others. Part of protecting your mental health is learning to focus on yourself and understanding that you are the only person you can change.
“Most of my family were very understanding, but others had trouble with it,” Smith says. “Even after showing my papers that I was cured, it took six months for some of them to come to me.”
Studies show that the anger, depression, and anxiety that accompany a diagnosis of hepatitis C are often a barrier to reaching others for support. But taking care of your mental health is not only emotionally important; It can make a difference in treatment results.
“People who have a good support system are more likely to comply with the complete treatment regimen,” says Tayer.
Some ways to boost your mental health include:
- Connect with others through Hip C. Hepatitis C is not rare. You can join online and in-person groups to talk about life with hepatitis C. Al Tayer says: The Mighty, a healthcare association of like-minded people dealing with health challenges.
- Consider counseling. Regular sessions with a trained therapist will give you tools to use when your mood is struggling. “There’s a really good help,” says Al Tayer. “And with the advent of telehealth, the odds are that you will find a provider somewhere in your state that can help.”
- Take care of your general health. Good sleep, good nutrition, and regular exercise are all important factors for general wellness and help manage symptoms of depression and anxiety. You may also enlist the help of other health professionals such as dietitians, physical therapists, or pain management specialists, depending on your symptoms.
- Use solid resources. Sites like the American Liver Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the CDC are good sources of information about hepatitis C. “Stick to verified sites that are science-based with the medical research behind them,” says Tayer. “This way, you’ll know what to expect from the symptoms, the clinical picture, the treatment, and how you’ll need to take care of yourself.”