Chronic illnesses, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), are a growing burden on health care systems worldwide. Self-management emphasises the patient’s central role in managing their illness. This is pertinent given the majority of care is provided by the individual themselves; yet how individuals make sense of self-management in everyday life is largely unseen.
The purpose of this study was to capture the strengths and concerns of individuals with RA in self-managing their illness, raise awareness of their lived experience and spark a dialogue among stakeholders.
A community-based participatory approach, Photovoice, was adopted. A purposive sample of participants were tasked with taking photographs to represent the challenges and solutions to living with RA. Group workshops and semi-structured interviews were conducted to facilitate reflection, dialogue and analysis. Data analysis followed Braun and Clarke’s thematic analysis. Public exhibitions were held throughout the Autumn of 2019.
Eight women and three men (n = 11) across suburban and urban regions of Ireland were recruited (mean age 57 years, disease duration 4–21 years). Participants identified four main themes which reflected the lived experience of self-managing RA: (i) I’m Here but I’m Not, (ii) Visible Illness, (iii) Medicine in All its Forms, (iv) Mind Yourself. These themes captured the challenge of reduced agency, limited contribution and participation, and a complex relationship between visible and invisible illness. Solutions focused on improving psychological and emotional resilience, particularly through personal reflection and increased agency.
Our findings suggest that RA is experienced as a fluid relationship between states of masking and surfacing of illness shaped by contextual and situational factors. Photovoice was a highly effective tool to capture and communicate this complexity. Supporting increased agency among individuals with RA to control the (in)visibility of illness and disability can inform the development of future self-management support.