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Mental health and brain injury

Mental health and brain injury

Exploring the link between mental health and brain injury

Following a brain injury, some survivors may begin to experience problems or changes with their mental health. Conditions may develop as the person starts to understand the full impact of their injury, or pre-existing symptoms may be exacerbated as a result.

Here, we explore the link between mental health and brain injury and look at the NHS’ steps to mental wellbeing.

What is mental health?

Mental health, also referred to as emotional health, is defined as a state of wellbeing in which a person can make the most of their potential, cope with the stresses of daily life and contribute to their community.

For most of us, feelings of stress, worry and anxiety will pass in time, but for some, these feelings may develop into something more serious.

Mental health conditions may include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia and more.

The link between mental health and brain injury

Brain injury and mental health are often seen and treated as two entirely separate diagnoses, or sometimes confused as being the same thing. However, both can be true; brain injury is sometimes an entirely separate issue to mental health, whereas other times brain injury can lead to mental health issues developing.

It may also be that you had mental health issues prior to the injury, and that the brain injury exacerbates your pre-existing mental health symptoms. There are therefore different ways in which mental health and brain injury can overlap.

This overlap can occur because all cognitive, psychological, emotional and behavioural skills come from the brain, and both brain injury and mental health issues occur because of some dysfunction of the brain.

3 ways to manage your mental health

Connect with other people

Good relationships are important for your mental wellbeing. They can help you to build a sense of belonging and self-worth and provide emotional support.

  • If possible, take time each day to be with your family, for example, try arranging a fixed time to eat dinner together
  • try switching off the TV to talk or play a game with your children, friends or family
  • make the most of technology to stay in touch with friends and family. Video-chat apps like Skype and FaceTime are useful

Be physically active

Evidence shows that exercise can improve your mental wellbeing by raising your self-esteem and causing chemical changes in your brain which can help to positively change your mood.

Tips to build activity into your day by:

  • walking or riding part of your journey to work or the shops
  • getting off a bus or tube stop before your destination
  • trying an online video workout
  • gardening

There are lots of fully accessible disability sports you could get involved with too, such as boccia, wheelchair football, horse-riding and swimming.

Learn new skills

Research shows that learning new skills can help to boost self-confidence, achieve a sense of purpose and connect with others.

Some of the things you could try include:

  • learning new cooking recipes
  • taking on a new responsibility at work
  • working on a DIY project
  • signing up for an online college course

This is not an exhaustive list and each person’s situation is individual to them.

Other forms of treatment may include taking medication, either on a short or long-term basis, and talking therapies such as counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy.

"I just felt numb"

Brain injury survivor Eleanor Brander says that the hidden effects of her injury contributed the most to her ongoing
mental health struggles.

Talking openly about her experiences, Eleanor, 43, said: “I was amazed by how people just expected me to return to ‘normal’ life. I struggled and still do.

“So many people asked me if I had a different perspective on life having been so close to dying, and I felt I should have come up with some philosophical statement about how different life was and how you need to live life to the full. Instead I just felt numb.”

Eleanor’s first experience with brain injury began in 2016 when she started suffering violent headaches. After various trips to the doctors and hospital, Eleanor was told that she had a colloid cyst on her brain and that she was suffering with acute intermittent hydrocephalus.

“Getting back to normal life was slow,” said Eleanor. “My recovery was good – but to begin with my hearing, memory and sight were awful.

“As time went on, negative thoughts started to creep in. I felt I had so little to offer life, why hadn’t I died? I had no skills, I wasn’t adding anything to anyone’s life.

“Once you start thinking this way it’s so hard to carry on living life like before. Instead of feeling inspired to live life to the full, I see a certain hopelessness and inevitability about life.”

Eleanor Brander

Brain injury survivor Eleanor Brander

Eleanor was prescribed antidepressants and was encouraged to make use of counselling services on offer. She was also able to take advantage of Headway’s online resources.

She said: “Headway’s website helped me so much. I was able to read other people’s stories and find out about what they were going through too.

“There was also a huge amount of information available. The factsheets were so helpful, they helped to normalise many of the symptoms I had like fatigue, anxiety and memory loss.

“To start with, I couldn’t find much information about brain injury that was clear and understandable – it was all very scientific. But then I found Headway’s website and it was easy to navigate and the information was so useful.”

With time, Eleanor has made improvements and is now hoping to start a teaching assistant course in the hope of finding full-time employment. But her poor mental health can still prove a challenge at times.

She said: “A lot of the time I suffer in silence because I don’t want to bore or worry people, but every day I feel the scars and bumps on my head when wash my hair, and I feel people are looking. I can never shake that feeling.

“I feel a certain amount of anger at myself and other people.

“Myself because I get cross that I can’t move on, and other people because they assume I am ok.

Others need to be more aware of how brain injury affects people mentally and psychologically.

Need support with your mental health after brain injury?

Download our Mental health and brain injury factsheet below, or contact our helpline on 0808 800 2244 or

Useful organisations:

Call 116 123

Call 0300 5000 927

Call 0300 123 3393


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