New treatment improves mental health of cardiac patients

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A new mental health treatment can significantly improve symptoms of anxiety and depression in heart disease patients, research has found.

A recent study, led by Greater Manchester Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust (GMMH) and The University of Manchester (UoM), discovered that Metacognitive Therapy improved the mental health of heart disease patients.

The findings of the study, which was funded by the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR), have been published in the American Heart Association journal, Circulation.

Cardiac rehabilitation (CR) services aim to improve heart disease patients’ health and quality of life, and reduce the risk of further problems with their heart. Around 90,000 patients attend CR every year in the UK.

Heart conditions affect people psychologically and emotionally, as well as physically. In a survey carried out by Heart Matters, over two thirds (68%) of participants said their condition had affected them mentally, emotionally, or psychologically.

Whilst CR services do have an educational component and an exercise component, they do not currently specifically focus on mental health treatment to support patients with symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Additionally, conventional mental health treatments, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), are less effective at improving the mental health of heart disease patients. One of the reasons for this is that CBT focuses on challenging negative thoughts and beliefs, which can be completely valid and realistic in people suffering from chronic and life-threatening heart conditions.

To address this, Professor Adrian Wells, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at GMMH and Professor of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology at UoM, who had developed a mental health treatment called Metacognitive Therapy (MCT), adapted this treatment for cardiac patients.

What is Metacognitive Therapy?

MCT helps people to manage worries and low mood through reducing unhelpful styles of thinking, such as rumination (dwelling on the past) and worry (concerns about the future). It helps people to discover new and more helpful ways to react to negative or distressing thoughts, so they are less likely to dwell on them, resulting in improved anxiety and mood.

The PATHWAY study evaluated the effectiveness of delivering MCT, alongside normal CR services, in treating symptoms of anxiety and depression in heart disease patients, in comparison to just receiving normal CR services alone.

Half of the 332 participants were randomly allocated to MCT plus standard CR treatment, and the other half were allocated to the standard CR. For those who were allocated to MCT, the therapy was embedded into their regular CR, and delivered by CR staff such as CR nurses, occupational therapists, and physiotherapists.

This took place at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, East Cheshire NHS Trust, Stockport NHS Foundation Trust and Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust.

Findings showed for the first time ever that MCT combined with CR is significantly more effective in improving symptoms of anxiety and depression in heart disease patients. It also proved to be more effective in helping patients reduce unhelpful thinking patterns and trauma symptoms.

Debra, who was referred to group Metacognitive Therapy following open heart surgery, said: “I found the MCT to be very interesting, informative and beneficial. It’s not a type of therapy I had experienced before; it was a very gentle and subtle therapy that, over several weeks, slowly changed my attitudes and beliefs around worrying and fretting.

“Although the therapy was quite some time ago, it has stayed with me and it’s something I naturally practice now, almost subconsciously. I think it’s a very useful life skill that anyone would benefit from, but particularly those who have suffered from any traumatic event, be that physical or mental and those that suffer with anxiety.”

Effectiveness of MCT

Effectiveness of the therapy was measured with the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS). The HADS questionnaire is often used to determine the levels of anxiety and depression in a person with physical health problems, using a scale of 0 to 21 for both anxiety and depression. A score of 0-7 is considered normal, with 8-10 being borderline, and 11 or over indicating clinical anxiety or depression.

The 163 individuals who were randomly allocated to MCT with standard CR treatment showed a significant average decrease in their HADS score for anxiety and depression of 3.24 after four months and 2.19 after 12 months. This compares to the 169 who only received standard CR treatment, who had an average decrease of 0.52 after four months and 0.33 after 12 months.

Overall, there was an improvement in the mental health of one in three heart patients who received MCT alongside standard CR treatment, in comparison to only one in five of those who received standard CR treatment. A further finding was that MCT appeared to prevent some patients from developing mental health problems.

The link between mental and physical health has long been known, and these findings signal a major step forwards in understanding and improving the overall recovery of heart disease patients.

Paula Bithell, Nurse Consultant at Pennine Acute NHS Hospitals Trust, said: “For some patients, the psychological impact of being diagnosed with a heart condition can be just as significant as the physical implications.

“MCT is a method to address the thoughts patients may have following their cardiac event in a familiar environment, in a group setting with patients who are experiencing similar thoughts and feelings to themselves. It is delivered by their recognised healthcare professionals who are experienced in cardiac care.

“My colleagues and I found that patients benefited hugely from the group therapy, with patients reporting that attending the group MCT supported them in overcoming the psychological barriers that were preventing them from resuming normal activities.

“Following the treatment, patients reported feeling more confident to go out and socialise again, resume hobbies and employment.”



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