Chronic Illness and Depression

May 19, 2021 | Patient Blog

*PSI does not give medical advice. The information below should not be substituted for that of a mental health or medical professional. Please speak to your medical provider if you are experiencing symptoms of depression or any other condition.*

After a chronic illness diagnosis, it’s common to feel sad, frustrated, isolated, and a range of other emotions. Chronic illness and depression oftentimes go hand in hand, and it’s easy to feel upset and lost. You are not alone.

A chronic illness is a health condition that is long-term and may have no cure. Examples include cystic fibrosis, hereditary angioedema, sickle cell disease, Parkinson’s disease, etc. 

Although chronic conditions can directly impact mental health, there are a range of steps and treatment options to explore.  

May is mental health awareness month, and we want to answer the question: how does a chronic illness affect depression?

depression and mental health

Chronic Illness and its Effect on Depression

Some people are at higher risk for developing depression or other mental illnesses than others. This is largely based on risk factors such as family history of mental health, conflicts, major life events, and more. 

When dealing with a medical condition, these risk factors can be amplified, especially if the condition is chronic or long-lasting. 

Research says up to one-third of people with a chronic condition experience symptoms of depression. Additionally, people with chronic physical illnesses are two times as likely to have depression or anxiety.

Some illnesses directly tie to higher rates of depression. For example, having a stroke directly affects the brain, which can link directly to developing anxiety or depression. 

According to the Cleveland Clinic and the CDC, the percentage of individuals with a mental illness and experiencing a chronic illness is as follows:

  • Alzheimer’s 11%
  • Heart attack 40-65%
  • Cerebrovascular 23%
  • Diabetes 25%
  • Cancer 25%
  • Parkinson’s 40%
  • Coronary artery disease 18-20%
  • Stroke 10-27%

Temporary sadness or stress is common after a diagnosis or significant medical event (heart attack, stroke, etc.), but if these feelings last, you may have depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. Being diagnosed with a chronic condition can cause feelings of stress, anger, or grief, which can all lead to a decline in mental health. 

Additionally, people with chronic illnesses typically have more severe symptoms of both their medical condition and depression. 

Symptoms of depression may include: 

  • Persistent sad feeling
  • Feeling anxious, empty, or hopeless
  • Decreased energy levels, tiredness, or sleep disturbances
  • Anger or irritability
  • Reduced appetite and weight loss or increased food cravings and weight gain
  • Trouble thinking or concentrating
  • Suicidal thoughts 

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, there are steps you can take to help manage them. 

chronic illness and therapy

Treating Depression and Mental Illness

Having a chronic illness can be a full-time job. It’s normal to experience sadness after a medical diagnosis, but coming up with a plan and surrounding yourself with support can ease the risk of depression. 

While chronic illness can affect mental health, getting diagnosed and beginning treatment can help. Having a chronic condition doesn’t mean mental illness has to control your life. 

The effect of depression can vary from person to person, so it’s important to note that the same treatment doesn’t work for everyone. 

Even so, finding the most effective treatment for yourself can benefit your mental health and even help with your medical condition, as depression can intensify your symptoms. 

Here are some specific ways you can battle depression. 

Surround Yourself with Support

Isolation is oftentimes one of the worst parts of having a chronic illness, as it can be difficult to connect with others who don’t understand your condition. Many people with long-term illnesses also worry about being a burden. With all these factors on top of the diagnosis itself, it’s clear why chronic diseases can directly play into a decline in mental health. 

This is why it’s so important to surround yourself with support. This can be friends, family, support groups, or professional help. 

Be Open with Your Healthcare Provider

Talking to your healthcare provider about your mental health is crucial in exploring effective treatment and your next steps. Speaking honestly about your symptoms and asking questions can help take a weight off your shoulders. 

Therapy and Medication

Therapy and medication can be effective in managing mental health disorders. Because every person can respond differently to treatments, it’s important to select the right option for you through research and speaking with your healthcare provider. 

Antidepressants can help treat depression. Research also shows that psychotherapy and cognitive-behavioral therapy also help, and even more so when combined with medication.

Still, treatment is individual, so a regimen that works for one person could be completely different from someone else. It’s important to work with your healthcare provider to find what works best for you. 

Self-Care Tips

Engaging in self-care activities, both mentally and physically, can benefit your mental health, chronic condition, and help you feel better overall. 

Here are some ideas:

  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Practice meditation. 
  • Take vitamins daily. Vitamins B1, B9, B12, D, and more have been proven to help mental health. 
  • Get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
  • Maintain gut health by taking probiotics and eating enough fiber.

While chronic illness and depression can go hand in hand, it doesn’t have to control your life. Understanding the relationship between your condition, mental health, and treatment options can put you on a path forward.

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