Over half living with heart and circulatory diseases have experienced sadness, anxiety and depression

19 July 2019        

Category: Research

Our new survey suggests that more than half of people living with heart and circulatory diseases have experienced feelings related to anxiety or depression, but many are not getting the help they need.

Two pairs of hands holding each other 

The survey carried out by Picker, and involving almost 5,000 people living with conditions such as a heart attack, stroke and heart failure, found that 58% of respondents living with heart and circulatory diseases had reported feeling sad, down or depressed.

It also found that 59% had experienced feelings of anxiety, and fear or uncertainty about the future.

If these results were representative of the 7.4 million in the UK living with the daily burden of heart and circulatory diseases, this would mean that around four million of those may have experienced these feelings at some stage.

More than a third ‘received no help’

The survey also sought to understand the support that people living with heart or circulatory diseases were offered. Nearly half of respondents (45%) who had experienced feelings of depression said they have had a moderate or high need for help, but around four in ten of those (39%) said they had received no help.

And, nearly half of respondents (45%) who had experienced anxiety, fear or uncertainty about the future also said they have had a moderate or high need for help, but more than a third (37%) of those said they had not received any.

People living with heart and circulatory diseases mentioned several challenges that affected their emotional and psychological wellbeing. These included treatment-related worries, perceived financial strain, lack of social support, impaired physical function, perception of feeling different from peers, bodily pain or symptoms, fear of recurrence of cardiac events, uncertainty about the future and impaired health-related quality of life.

The need for psychological and emotional support was common across all groups of people. Those who said they received no help wanted to have better access to professional psychological support, be it through their GP or as part of rehabilitation.

Core consideration

Parallel work funded by us has revealed that less than half of all cardiac rehabilitation programmes – which offer exercise and information sessions to help people following a heart attack, heart surgery or procedure - have staff designated to mental health management.

And, according to further analysis of patient data by us, more than one in three (37%) working age adults in the UK living with coronary heart disease have been diagnosed with anxiety or depression by their GP, up from 30% a decade earlier. Around 4 in 10 (41%) working age stroke survivors have also been diagnosed with anxiety or depression by their GP. A decade earlier, this figure was 33%. Coronary heart disease, which can cause a heart attack, and stroke are two of the most common types of heart and circulatory disease in the UK.

The BHF is now urging the NHS and Governments across the UK to ensure that emotional and psychological support is a core consideration in the care and support provided to everyone affected by heart and circulatory diseases. In the BHF’s latest strategy, the nation’s heart charity is calling for everyone to receive the support they need to make a good recovery and live free from the fear of these conditions.

‘I was emotional and fearful’

Cem Hilmi who had a heart attack

Cem Hilmi, aged 45 and from London, suffered a heart attack in 2011 and struggled with feelings of depression.

He said: “It hit me when I was discharged home. I felt alone. I got very emotional and very fearful. When I went to bed at night, I had a fear that I would suffer a heart attack in my sleep. My biggest fear was that my wife would find me dead.

“I was also very tearful, I couldn’t stop crying. I have cried a lot since. Before my heart attack I could probably count how many times I had cried since childhood on one hand. But after this I was a lot more emotional. It shocked me just how constant it was. I couldn’t make it stop.

“I didn’t know about cardiac rehabilitation, so I felt like I had slipped through the net. I was at a point where I didn’t know who or what could help me. My wife, Rosa, contacted the British Heart Foundation’s Heart Helpline and I was given details of a local cardiac rehabilitation programme. The support I received through this has helped me to get back on my feet and I now help others who have gone through the same situation. I would tell anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation to speak to others that have gone through it - it will help you not feel alone and help when you are scared.”

‘I couldn’t accept it had happened to me’

Stroke Survivor Anna Smith Higgs

Anna Smith Higgs, aged 39 and from Essex, suffered a stroke on Christmas Day 2004 when she was aged just 24. Following her stroke, she struggled with feelings of anxiety.

She said: “After the stroke, I just couldn’t accept it had happened to me and feared it would happen again. My son, Henry, was only a month old when I had a stroke. I was crying all the time and I stayed in bed for two years. I wouldn’t get out of bed, because I was too scared of having another stroke. Even going to the toilet was a massive mission for me.

“Henry started at nursery and I couldn’t physically get him there because of my panic attacks. One day my mum encouraged me to take him, and I cried all the way there and all the way back. That’s when I realised something had to change. I booked an appointment with my GP and I was prescribed antidepressants and was offered counselling.

“Through this, I was able to accept that I had a stroke and my life became easier. I’m unable to use my right arm and sometimes require a wheelchair to get around, but I haven’t let it stop me from trying all sorts of activities – such as abseiling, fire eating and burlesque dancing. I also run a weekly ‘cake and chat’ group at my local hospital, where other stroke survivors can come along and receive support.”

Feeling low, worried or anxious

Simon Gillespie, Chief Executive of the BHF, said: “Suffering a heart attack or stroke or receiving a diagnosis of any heart or circulatory disease can be devastating, so it’s unacceptable that so many people affected are not getting the emotional and psychological support they so desperately need.

“Everyone should have access to support and care that addresses their psychological needs alongside treatment of their heart or circulatory disease. And we need to fund more research to better understand the support needs of those who are affected.

“For anyone who has had a heart attack, stroke or heart surgery, or has been told they have a heart or circulatory condition, it is normal to feel low, worried or anxious. We would encourage anyone who is feeling overwhelmed or low to talk to a friend or a partner, ask your GP for advice, or contact the BHF.”

The BHF provides support and information through its Heart Helpline, where people living with heart and circulatory diseases can speak to a cardiac nurse. To contact the helpline, call 0300 330 3311.

People living with heart and circulatory diseases can also receive advice through Health Unlocked, an online peer to peer support service. Support, advice and information is also available through the BHF website.

For further advice, visit Heart Matters