Living with a chronic illness can be challenging, both physically and mentally, so it’s not surprising there’s a high comorbidity rate between chronic illnesses and depression.
Comorbidity is the presence of one or more illnesses in addition to the first (or primary) condition. Currently, 6 in 10 people in the US suffer from a chronic condition, and according to the National Institute of Mental Health people who suffer from chronic illnesses are at an increased risk of mental health issues.
It’s normal to feel upset after the diagnosis of a chronic or life-limiting condition. You might have new limitations which impact what you can do, and you may be nervous about your treatment or what the future holds. These feelings are to be expected after a new diagnosis, but if they don’t go away you might be experiencing depression.
People with a chronic illness may suffer from depression for the same reasons as anyone else. However, a chronic condition can itself be a risk factor for depression, while mental health issues can put you at an increased risk of chronic illness.
Studies have found that people who suffer from both a chronic physical condition and mental illness will have more severe symptoms of both conditions than those who suffer from one or the other.
It’s important to seek help if you feel like your mental health is being affected by your condition. Treating your mental health can improve your daily life and help you to cope with your physical illness.
What is chronic illness?
A chronic illness can be defined as an illness that's long-lasting, and often is treated and controlled rather than cured. There are different types of chronic illness, including:
Chronic illnesses affect people differently; some illnesses will get worse over time, while others may have symptoms which come and go.
It can be scary to be diagnosed with a chronic illness, particularly when the symptoms may be difficult to cope with and are lifelong. It can be hard to adjust to new treatments or accept losing some or all of your independence.
It may be helpful to research your condition to help you understand what's happening to you, or talk to people who live with the same illness (in person or online) as they may be able to offer reassurance and support.
Try not to be too hard on yourself, it can take time to adapt to living with a chronic condition.
Why chronic illness can lead to depression
If you live with a chronic illness you may face challenges and have daily struggles that you didn’t have before. You might have problems with mobility, or lose some of your independence.
Adjusting to this new way of life is challenging, so it’s not surprising that one of the most common comorbidities in people with a chronic illness is depression. In fact, depression affects one third of people living with a chronic condition.
If you have depression as a result of a chronic condition, it can aggravate the condition. You’re more likely to experience depression if your illness has caused greater physical pain or led to isolation. Unfortunately depression can, in turn, exacerbate physical pain and make you feel more tired.
The chronic illnesses most often linked with depression include:
- coronary heart disease
- multiple sclerosis
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- systemic lupus erythematosus
- rheumatoid arthritis
Tips to manage mental health issues when you have a chronic illness
For anyone suffering from a mental illness, it’s important to seek help.
For those who have a chronic condition as well as a mental health illness, getting treatment can improve your overall medical condition and improve your quality of life, making it easier for you to continue your treatment plan.
Some people find that by improving treatment of their chronic condition, their mental health also improves. Some medicines are also known to cause depression, so you should discuss the side effects of your medication with your doctor.
For others, improving their mental health - either with medication, talk therapy, or both - can help them manage their chronic illness.
Tips for coping with a chronic illness
If you’re suffering from a chronic illness it’s important to communicate with your doctors, and other healthcare providers, as well as attend your regular check-ups. This can provide and opportunity for you ask any questions, and get a better understanding of your disease.
If you find yourself falling into negative thought patterns about your condition then cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) may help. CBT can change negative thought patterns about your illness, and give you the tools you need to face the challenges your illness presents.
A personal and professional support system can be very helpful. Living with a chronic illness can feel isolating at times; letting your family, friends, and colleagues know how best to support you can help you feel less alone.
Another helpful part of coping with a chronic condition is to focus on your physical and mental wellbeing. While you can’t stick to the same routine all of the time, try and keep regular sleeping hours, eat a healthy and balanced diet, and incorporate mindfulness into your daily routine.
If you're struggling with your mental health, you should always seek help.
The comorbidity of chronic illness and depression can cause the symptoms of both conditions to get worse, so it’s important to consider your mental health as well as your physical health if you have a chronic condition.
Remember, you’re not alone. If you can’t find anyone to talk to face to face, look for online communities for support, and make sure to speak to your doctor to discuss your symptoms and options.