Psychosocial stress associated with skin conditions

A third of people living with long term skin conditions may experience some form of distress and stigmatisation. How can we ensure that the right support is in place to address this?

Person with vitiligo

Dr Andrew Thompson, an academic at the University of Sheffield’s Department of Psychology, has been attempting to provide psychological support to people living with visible differences. That’s conditions like vitiligo – a long-term condition that sees white patches develop on the skin – burn marks or psoriasis.

For those with visible differences, not only are there the challenges of dealing with physical discomfort, there is the accompanying psychological distress. And the challenge becomes even more difficult with a lack of support for mental health. “The needs of people with a visible difference has, for many years, been neglected or pushed to one side, and one of the biggest challenges for people living with skin conditions is to get access to psychological support. The most common issue associated with visible skin conditions are concerns about social situations.” says Andrew. The result is an isolated population of people in need of psychological support which many are not getting. And for those who do seek help, it’s not forthcoming.

Through his work, Andrew has sought to fill the gap in service provision. It’s not an area that has achieved the support it desperately requires, with attention focused solely on specific conditions rather than common factors, such as scars that spread across different illnesses. “I was part of a huge multicentre study that sort to identify the factors associated with disfigurement and this led to the publication of the treatment manual.” The manual Andrew refers to is the first of its kind, designed for psychological practitioners to better understand the mental trauma skin conditions can cause on individuals.

Patient and doctor holding a clipboard

Working with Changing Faces and The Katie Piper Foundation, his expertise has influenced major charities within the UK. He’s helped to design major campaigns and techniques, and has led on the production of online resources. But his work has also been hugely beneficial to medical staff across the UK. “My work has raised awareness of the need for support and provided training for NHS staff in relation to the psychological aspects of skin diseases.” says Andrew.

Decades after first investigating the mental side of a physical condition, Andrew is still battling to improve the lives of thousands in the UK.  “I became interested in this area particularly because it is a neglected area and interestingly, while it involves both psychological and social factors, these aspects of physical disfigurement had been overlooked. People face real stigmatisation. The more I learn, the more I realise there are still a lot of factors that we do not understand about the relationship between mind and skin.”

Skin condition

The rise in mental health provision is one that has transformed the NHS in recent years. But Adam’s work of taking what can be seen on the surface and delving into the inside is one that may help many who currently suffer in silence.

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