Chronic Illness and Mental Health

Having a chronic illness can impact so many aspects of your life other than your health. It can impact your relationships, your finances, your self-esteem, and more. And that includes your mental health. As someone who has been in pain since fall 2001, I can confirm that chronic illnesses can do a number on your mental health. I personally had a bout of depression in high school when doctors kept telling me that nothing was wrong with me. (They were all wrong.) So I thought that today I would break down the connection between chronic illness and mental health, as well as some ways that you can help your mental health.

For the purpose of clarity, in this post, when I mention chronic illness, I’m discussing physical illnesses only. Mental illness can definitely be considered a chronic illness, especially when it lasts for years. But in this particular post, I want to discuss physical chronic illness and mental health, which can include mental illness.

I am not a medical professional. I have included advice from mental professionals and reputable sources, but if you are struggling with your mental health, please speak to a professional.

Do you or someone you care about have a chronic illness? Then you need to be on the look out for its impact on mental health. Chronic illness and mental health need to be considered when thinking about living with a chronic illness. Here's what you need to know.

Who Has a Chronic Illness?

First and foremost, let’s talk about what a chronic illness is and who has them. Chronic illnesses “are ongoing, generally incurable illnesses or conditions, such as heart disease, asthma, cancer, and diabetes” (x). Essentially, because there’s no cure and no reason to think they’ll ever go away, they’re chronic illnesses. This is different from a condition like a bone deformity, which would be a chronic condition. For example, my ankle condition is a chronic condition, as my ankle didn’t form correctly it isn’t healthy, but it’s not an illness that needs regular maintenance like my rheumatoid arthritis is.

Who has a chronic illness? 133 million Americans, or 40%, have a chronic illness, and that number is estimated to grow to 157 million by 2020 (x). Almost a third of the population lives with multiple chronic conditions (x).

What’s the impact? In 2009, 7 of 10 deaths in the US were due to chronic illnesses (x). Sadly, “According to the New England Journal of Medicine, people with chronic conditions receive only 56% of recommended preventive health care services,” which definitely attributes to those deaths (x). And there’s an economic effect. In 2007, chronic illness had a $1.3 trillion negative effect on the economy (x). Additionally, ” In the U.S., total spending on public and private health care amounted to approximately $2 trillion during 2005″ (x). I include all this to demonstrate something that healthy people don’t often think about when it comes to chronic illness: chronic illness can impact areas of your life other than physical health.

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Imagine that you have an illness that will never go away. In addition, it costs thousands of dollars a year, and you may or may not have that money to spare. You also have to spend too much time at doctor’s offices, which might make your job unhappy with you. That is, if you’re healthy enough to work. Your family and friends may or may not stick by you in your illness, and if they do stick by you, they might not be very nice to you about it.

As you have probably figured, that doesn’t set you up for very good mental health. Even if you don’t develop a mental illness, you will definitely have times when you’re down in the dumps, sad about your health, frustrated with the world, anxious about your future, and more.

I know, I know, this all seems fine and dandy and hypothetical. So don’t take my word for you. A 2000 study found that “The emotional dimensions of chronic conditions are often overlooked when medical care is considered” (x). Basically, “Doctors may be well equipped for the biomedical aspects of care but not for the challenges of understanding the psychological, social, and cultural dimensions of illness and health” (x). So when doctors give help for physical problems, they might not be able to provide support for the effects of those physical problems. But as I already mentioned, having a chronic illness most likely will cause some sort of mental health problems over the course of a patient’s life.

In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health found that “People with other chronic medical conditions have a higher risk of depression” (x). Depending on the illness, some illnesses can cause changes in the brain that lead directly to depression (x). Some other ways that this might happen include depression triggered by illness-related anxiety and stress, a recent illness diagnosis, or even from medications (x). Frustratingly, “Research suggests that people who have depression and another medical illness tend to have more severe symptoms of both illnesses” (x).

The gist of it is that chronic illness is a risk factor for mental illness, along with family history, traumatic experiences, stressful life experiences (which chronic illness could be included in), using illegal drugs, and lack of social support (x). Because of this, it’s important that we chronic illness patients and the loved ones of patients take care of our mental health, whether or not we have a mental illness.

So You Were Diagnosed with a Chronic Illness: What You Should Do Next

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How To Manage Chronic Illness and Mental Health

Now that we’ve established that this is a problem we chronic illness patients needs to be aware of, let’s talk about how to deal with and manage it.

First and foremost, if you can afford it, see a therapist. If you’ve recently been diagnosed, it can’t hurt to see one to help process your feelings as you adjust to your diagnosis and new life. If you are in school, your student health services might provide counseling. You should also try therapy if you’re going through a rough patch health-wise or you feel like you’re starting to struggle mentally with everything. Basically, therapy is great. I went back to therapy when Trump won because my generalized anxiety disorder flared up due to his anti-ACA leanings. It has gotten a lot better, but I’m still seeing my therapist to help manage the mental aspect of all of my physical health issues. Because I have generalized anxiety disorder and a history of depressive episodes, it’s so important for me to be on top of my mental health. I share this so you know that I’m speaking from experience when it comes to mental health. chronic illness and therapy.

Other than therapy, how else can you manage your mental health with your chronic illness? Psychology Today says that some ways are to surround yourself with people who support and care for you, practice being aware of gratitude, mindfulness, exercise in some way, eat healthy, take breaks, and get sleep (x). The University of Michigan also suggests you avoid or reduce alcohol or drugs, set realistic goals, and learn to deal with stress (x). A UK organization called Mental Health Foundation suggests that you also stay in touch with friends and family that are far away, ask for help when you need it, do things you’re good at in your spare time, and accept who you are (x). These are things to do every day, to help take care of your mental health.

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What about if you’re worried that you’ve developed a mental illness? Mental Health America has this amazing list of signs of mental illness in adults, children, and adolescents. Let’s say that you’ve taken a look at the list and are pretty sure that you have a mental illness. In this case, you should see your primary care doctor and/or a therapist to help you navigate this. You shouldn’t have to navigate mental illness on your own. If your insurance covers it and/or you can afford it, see a professional.

Some people need medication for their mental illness. And that’s okay! I need medication for my rheumatoid arthritis, so why shouldn’t I need medication for my generalized anxiety disorder? If your medical professional(s) suggest you try medication and you can afford it, then I suggest you try it. It’s important to recognize that mental illness is an imbalance of chemicals in the brain. It’s not your fault if you struggle with mental illness, and you’re not weak if you ask for help or take medication for it.

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But if you’re looking for professional help with mental health, you should know that psychology and psychiatry are different. “Psychiatrists receive the same medical school education as any other medical doctor, such as an internal medicine physician or a pediatrician and, therefore, hold a doctor of medicine degree (M.D.),” Psychology Today says (x). “Psychiatrists are also responsible for diagnosing mental disorders and managing medications, as their expertise focuses on the chemical imbalances within the brain. Similar to any other physician, they can write prescriptions,” which psychologists can’t (x). More specifically, “Psychologists do not attend medical school; rather they attend graduate school and obtain a doctoral degree” (x). When you think about a therapist, you’re generally thinking about a psychologist, as “Psychologists are experts in providing psychosocial therapy and concentrate on the patient’s mind and emotions” (x).

Essentially, if you think that you might need to take medication, you want to see a psychiatrist. If you don’t think you need medication and/or just want someone to talk through things, you want to see a psychologist. Psychology Today has a tool to help you find a therapist right on their website, and many insurance companies have tools on their sites for policy holders to help their find covered medical professionals. Take advantage of that!

How do you deal with chronic illness and mental health?

Like this post? Check out:

Is Chronic Illness a Disability?, Chronically Ill Tips: Preparing for Medical Appointments, Hacks for Living with Chronic Conditions, The Art of Managing Anxiety

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1 Comment

  • Reply Lydia

    What a well organized post. I enjoyed reading it. And, yeah, there is absolutely no shame in taking medications for mental illnesses. It truly is no different than taking insulin if you have diabetes or antibiotics for an infection.

    January 6, 2020 at 8:29 am
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