How Chronic Illness Impacts Mental Health

June 2021

When you’re dealing with a chronic illness, such as diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis, you typically focus on managing your physical symptoms. It can be easy to overlook the toll that an ongoing medical condition can take on your mental health.

However, having a chronic illness or serious medical condition puts you at a higher risk of depression, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).

Here’s why chronic illness is so taxing — and how to find some relief.

Why chronic illness triggers depression

There are several reasons why chronic illness, and other medical conditions, such as cancer, can lead to depression.

Anxiety and stress. Poor physical health can take a toll on your psychological well-being. Managing all your medical appointments, medications and the limitations caused by your disease can feel overwhelming. This can cause anxiety and stress, which, in turn, can trigger depression, according to the NIMH.

Physical changes. Some chronic medical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and stroke, cause changes in the brain that increase your risk of depression.

Pain. Physical pain is a symptom of many chronic medical conditions. When pain lasts three or more months, it’s considered chronic. Common conditions associated with chronic pain include arthritis, back/neck pain, fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, multiple sclerosis and menstruation- related pain. If you have chronic pain, you’re four times more likely to have depression or anxiety than someone without pain.

Medications. Some medications that treat your chronic illness can contribute to anxiety and depression. For example, depression is listed as a possible side effect of beta blockers, medication used to treat heart disease and congestive heart failure. Corticosteroids, used to reduce inflammation associated with several chronic conditions, can cause anxiety and mood changes.

Are you at risk?

Coping with a chronic illness can be tough for everyone. But people with certain conditions are especially at risk of developing depression. Specific medical conditions — such as stroke, Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s disease — can also cause changes in the brain. Moreover, depression is common among people with the following conditions, according to the NIMH:

  • Cancer
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Epilepsy
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Systemic lupus erythematosus
  • Rheumatoid arthritis.

Tips for Coping

All too often, mental health takes a back seat to physical symptoms and issues. But taking charge of your mental health helps you take better care of your physical health, too. Follow these tips to take care of both:

Learn the warning signs of depression. It’s normal to experience sadness and anxiety with a chronic illness or after a diagnosis such as cancer. However, if these feelings last for more than two weeks or increase in severity, you may have depression.

Read your medication labels. Some medications can cause anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts. These medications often come with what’s known as a “black box” warning on the label. However, don’t stop taking any medication without talking to your doctor. Stopping medication abruptly can worsen these feelings. Before you start any medication, ask your doctor about potential mental health side effects.

Get daily exercise. Exercise benefits many chronic conditions. It can also boost mental health by releasing endorphins that improve your mood.

For example, exercise is considered the most effective non-drug treatment for reducing pain and improving movement in osteoarthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation. Physical activity can also help you manage diabetes. Talk to your doctor about what exercise works best for your condition.

Talk to your doctor. If you have any signs of depression or feel anxious or stressed, it’s important to let your doctor know. If it’s related to your medication, they may be able to offer an alternative. They can also prescribe medications and therapy to manage the depression caused by your illness.

Make your mental health a priority. People with depression plus another medical condition tend to have more severe symptoms of both illnesses, according to the NIMH.

Support those with mental illness. If a friend or family member has a chronic illness, and you notice signs of depression in them, speak up. They may not recognize they need help. Encourage them to seek outside, professional care.

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