Clinical Topics & News

Interview with Mary Alissa Willis, MD, on MS and Mental Health


Mary Alissa Willis, MD, is the Medical Director for the Mellen Center for Multiple Sclerosis at the Cleveland Clinic. We spoke with Dr. Willis about mental health issues in persons with MS and what health care facilities can do to better care for these patients.

What is the prevalence of depression in patients with MS?
Depression and anxiety are common in persons with multiple sclerosis (PwMS). In a systematic review, Ruth Ann Marrie, MD, PhD, and colleagues estimated the prevalence of depression in PwMS to be 23.7%. Approximately half of all PwMS experience depression at some point after their diagnosis. 1-3 This makes depression nearly twice as common in MS as in the general population.

What are some reasons patients with MS might begin to experience depression? What are some warning signs to look out for?

Many people assume that PwMS experience depression because of psychosocial stressors, unpredictability of disease progression, or poor coping strategies. Although these factors do contribute to depression, there is increasing evidence that immune dysregulation and structural changes in the brain caused by MS disease activity make some PwMS uniquely vulnerable to depression. Functional MRI studies have shown abnormalities in the prefrontal-subcortical network connectivity, which is involved in mood regulation. In addition, persistent somatic symptoms such as severe pain and fatigue limit daily activities and social participation—generally considered to be protective factors in depression. 4 Warning signs for depression include loss of interest in activities, weight loss or weight gain, changes in sleep—too much or too little, an increase in fatigue, expressions of hopelessness or guilt, or increasing drug or alcohol use.

What are some special considerations for patients with MS battling suicidal ideation?

Anthony Feinstein, MBBCh, MPhil, PhD, and colleagues reported that more than 28% of PwMS had suicidal ideation at some point. 5 This is a huge number of people struggling with thoughts of suicide. Depression is a risk factor for suicide but other risks specific to PwMS include perceived loss of control, loss of job/income/social roles, loss of driving privileges, and marked physical or cognitive difficulties. While we are doing a better job screening for depression with quick screening tools such as the PHQ9, we could do better in suicide risk assessment.

What can health care providers do better to address depression and risk for suicide? What safety/preventative measures can they take?

The first step in better addressing depression and risk for suicide is to directly ask patients. Pay attention to changes in appearance, behavior, requests for prescription refills, frequency of appointments, and who accompanies patients to appointments. Explore the reasons for these changes. It is important to respond proactively when comments or behavior suggest a patient at risk. Ask specific questions about plan, access to means, previous suicide attempts, and support network. Refer promptly for emergency or mental health services when appropriate. Familiarity with mental health colleagues, local crisis centers, and helplines can be helpful in engaging a team of people to provide assistance to a patient in need.


1. Marrie RA, Fisk JD, Tremlett H, et al. Differences in the burden of psychiatric comorbidity in MS vs the general population. Neurology. 2015;85(22):1972-1979.


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