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Why Mental Health Care Should Be Part of Surgery Recovery

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Surgery can have a lot of effects on mental health, however, there aren’t many mental health programs provided during the recovery process. After major surgery, care teams focus on many aspects of recovery. They tell you what to expect during recovery. Usually, they set up follow-up appointments with surgeons and doctors, and appointments with physical therapy.  But they don’t always ask about your mental health. They don’t ask you how are you feeling regarding depression or anxiety. Yet many chronically ill or disabled individuals have experienced medical trauma, depression, and/or PTSD. So why isn’t mental health being addressed as a part of surgery recovery?

• What is PTSD?

If you search up “can surgery cause…” some of the main searches that come up are personality change and depression. Yet there don’t seem to be any mental health programs in place for those in surgery recovery.

I was 14 years old when I had my second open-heart surgery. It was the summer between freshman and sophomore year in high school. I was told I was only supposed to be in the hospital for three days at the most. Two and a half weeks in the ICU and a blood clot that wasn’t diagnosed until after leaving the hospital left me with undiagnosed severe medical PTSD.

After my second open heart surgery, everyone kept saying I changed. I was a different person. At 14, I didn’t know what to do with that information and the trauma I had gone through during my surgery. Information and therapy were not readily accessible for me. Mental health support was always used as a weapon. I was told if I didn’t get better (mentally) I would “have to go to a therapist.” It was never presented to me as a positive option by doctors or people who seemed to want to help me. Instead of any of my doctors noticing that I was in trouble after my surgery, I was only asked how I was doing physically. This lack of care led to many issues for me for a number of years. Having surgery, going under anesthesia, having medical devices in you like IVs and other things, leaving your life in the hands of doctors and nurses can bring up a lot of emotions. My medical trauma was a catalyst to many things in my young adult life that shaped me.

In 2019, I had my third open heart surgery at 31 years old. My procedure went well and I was out of the hospital in three days. The day they discharged me, they asked me a range of questions including asking if I was feeling depressed or anxious on a scale. I answered an 8 at the time. I was surprised at how they responded to my high number. It wasn’t met with concern or advice — instead, they made a note of my number and continued on. No therapy references were given to me, not even a number printed out on my discharge papers.

When I got home, I struggled. I continued to struggle mentally as I tried to recover from major surgery. I realized that I needed help and or I would go back to the destructive ways I had tried to overcome when I was in high school and in my early 20s. I had tried and failed to get a therapist before, but this time I wasn’t going to let things discourage me. It took me almost six months before I finally was able to get one.

Mental health programs should be a part of surgery recovery. These programs could range from wellness classes to several free sessions with a therapist. I believe it can not only help many disabled and chronically ill people, but anyone who is going through the trauma of surgery. These measures can help prevent medical PTSD, depression, and other mental illnesses. Having these programs as a part of surgery recovery without the patient having to ask, reach out, or jump through hoops just to see a therapist can help save their life.

Getty image by stefanamer.

Originally published: September 28, 2021
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