Doctors and campaigners are now calling for urgent action as new data shows a third of sufferers frequently think about taking their own life – yet only a third have been able to access adequate mental health support.
The findings of the study, carried out by the University of Reading and the Spinal Injuries Association, were presented in Parliament last week at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Spinal Cord Injuries.
The Mail on Sunday has learned of a number of harrowing cases, including a mother-of-two who was offered no treatment for depression after being left paralysed by a disease that destroyed her spinal cord.
Despite her struggles – and the fact that her 14-year-old son tried to take his own life due to the stress of their situation – she said mental health support was ‘never even mentioned’ by anyone assigned to care for her.
Former teacher Donna Tuzul, 52, from Bournemouth, says there was ‘no mention at all’ of mental health support for depression after a nerve disease destroyed her spinal cord and left her paralysed in a wheelchair
Another 25-year-old woman left paralysed from the waist down in early 2020 after falling off a chair at work and hitting her back on a desk was unable to access mental health support for more than a year, and suffered multiple breakdowns and ‘constant suicidal thoughts’ before her GP provided a referral.
We also learned of how a 19-year-old who lost the use of his legs after a motorcycle accident spiralled into alcohol and opioid painkiller addiction after being offered no mental support.
Dr Katherine Finlay, a psychologist at the University of Reading, said: ‘People with spinal-cord injuries regularly experience clinical anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal thoughts.
‘Mental ill health is a hidden epidemic among people with chronic illness and injury. The NHS must do something to tackle it.’
Experts say new guidance must be drawn up as soon as possible giving these patients immediate access to a specialist psychotherapist, as well as lifelong check-ups.
Nik Hartley, CEO of the Spinal Injuries Association, said: ‘The mental health of these patients is an afterthought and, at worst, completely ignored by the medical profession. We need urgent action.’
There are an estimated 50,000 people in the UK living with a spinal-cord injury. Each year approximately 2,500 people join this list with a new injury.
The spinal cord communicates messages to and from the brain with all areas of the body.
An injury can interrupt these, leading to partial or full loss of movement in parts of the body so can be life-changing.
Patients often need a wheelchair, suffer pain and fatigue, and suffer from bladder, bowel and sexual-function issues. As a result, many will require full-time care.
NHS guidance states that spinal-cord injury patients should be offered a mental health check-up every six months for two years after their diagnosis, but experts warn this doesn’t always happen
The most common causes of spinal injuries are road accidents, falls, violent attacks, sports injuries and domestic accidents.
NHS guidance states that spinal-cord injury patients should be offered a mental health check-up every six months for two years after their diagnosis.
But Dr Finlay says this often does not happen. ‘A lot of the time we hear these sessions are entirely focused on physical health. What’s more, four sessions over two years is not nearly enough. These patients need lifelong, rapid support.’
Kathryn Hill, director of programmes at the Spinal Injuries Association, says: ‘There is nothing there to support these patients following a catastrophic life-changing event. They have to work out what happens next on their own.’
Donna Tuzul, 52, says there was ‘no mention at all’ of mental health support after a nerve disease left her paralysed in a wheelchair.
The former teacher from Bournemouth was diagnosed with cauda equina, a rare condition that compresses the very end of the spinal cord and can lead to permanent nerve damage, in 2015 after she was admitted to hospital with severe back pain.
‘I was told that by the time I got to hospital it was too late to do anything. The surgeon told me I would be paralysed even if I had an operation there and then. I walked into hospital, and left three months later in a wheelchair.’
There are an estimated 50,000 people in the UK living with a spinal-cord injury. The spinal cord communicates messages to and from the brain with all areas of the body [File picture]
Donna says her life irreversibly changed. ‘I couldn’t even get into my kitchen at first because of the wheelchair. I couldn’t cook for my children, I couldn’t put them to bed.’
Before her illness, she lived an active life. The sudden change left her ‘in a very dark place’.
Her son, now 18 who was 12 at the time, began to self-harm. At 14, he tried to take his own life.
Despite this, Donna, who also has a daughter aged 14, says: ‘Mental health treatment wasn’t mentioned by my doctors or carers who visited each day.’
Eventually, Donna requested to see a therapist through her GP but says: ‘The therapist gave me breathing exercises, but I didn’t that, I needed someone who could understand what I was going through and could give me practical advice.
‘I needed someone closer to a bereavement councillor because it felt like I’d lost my life.’
For confidential support call Samaritans on 116123 or visit a Samaritans branch