According to the CDC, six in ten adults in the United States have a chronic illness; four in ten have two or more chronic illnesses. By definition, a chronic illness lasts a year or more. Overall, chronic illnesses are the leading cause of death in the US. Chronic illnesses may increase the likelihood of having or developing a mental health condition. Depression is common and it is estimated that up to one-third of individuals with a serious medical condition experience symptoms of depression.
Feelings of sadness or discouragement after certain life events, such as a health scare, receiving an undesired diagnosis, or when trying to manage a complicated health condition is common. It can be challenging to adapt to a new reality and to cope with the changes associated with a chronic illness. While feelings of sadness, fear and anxiety are normal and expected initially, symptoms lasting longer than a couple of weeks may be an indication that you are experiencing depression.
Depression is more than just a “case of the blues.” It impairs your ability to cope with and manage daily life and activities including enjoying family, and friends, or work, and leisure. The implications of depression surpass mood alone. Depression is a serious clinical illness with many symptoms, including physical ones. The National Institute of Mental Health lists symptoms of depression including:
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
- Feeling hopeless or pessimistic
- Feeling irritable, easily frustrated‚ or restless
- Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
- Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
- Decreased energy, fatigue, or feeling “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
- Changes in appetite or weight
- Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause that do not ease even with treatment
- Suicide attempts or thoughts of death or suicide
Ways to cope
Living with chronic illness is challenging for multiple reasons. As you formulate a plan for living with your condition, it is important to surround yourself with those things and people that make you feel good and those who understand (or are willing to learn), and respect your circumstances, including any limitations.
Stay connected to healthcare professionals
Establish relationships with the medical experts who can assist you with your mental health journey and with managing your chronic conditions. Having trained professionals to talk openly about your ongoing questions and concerns will give you knowledge about your illness and help you feel confident and empowered in your success and management.
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Negative self-talk and struggling to cope are common among patients with chronic illness. It can be psychologically exhausting to manage every day. Cognitive behavioral therapy helps to change repetitive, negative thought patterns that are the foundation for depression, as well as teach healthy mental and physical coping techniques to develop positive outcomes.
Surround yourself with people who are invested in your health
Life with a chronic illness can feel lonely. Isolation, mental health issues, and physical restrictions all make it difficult to connect with other people and get the support you need. It is essential to surround yourself with people who care, in both personal and professional support networks. An invaluable resource includes having access to the internet with online support groups and online therapy.
Physical and mental self-care
Both mental illness and chronic health conditions are optimized with a reduction of stress, improved sleep, and following your medical provider’s recommendations for treatment. Diet changes and exercise can often lead to an overall improvement in conditions. Prioritize healthy habits for your own mental and physical well being. Healthy habits include:
- making time to sleep and rest,
- eating a balanced and healthy diet,
- remaining physically active (in as much as you are able, and is safe for your health),
- engaging in social activities (in person or online), and
- remaining connected with supportive and important people in your life.
Ultimately, anything that will contribute to a positive attitude and outlook will be of value in creating the emotional, mental and physical status to cope with the challenges associated with managing chronic illness and related mental wellness, in a healthy, safe and productive way.
Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. If you or someone you know is in immediate distress or is thinking about hurting themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). You also can text the Crisis Text Line (HELLO to 741741) or use the Lifeline Chat on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.