Why people with chronic illnesses have a higher risk of depression

For those living with a chronic illness, there is no shortage of difficulties and challenges to overcome. While a diagnosis can help to explain, understand and medicate symptoms of an illness, it doesn’t necessarily help to sort out the emotional aspect of a patient including how one thinks, feels and functions.

Both mental and physical health have an intertwined relationship, and one can feed into the other. At Better Healthcare, our nurses and carers can see first-hand the relationship between chronic illnesses and mental health problems, particularly depression. In this article, we’re going to discuss the reasons behind the relationship, what effects it can have on the overall health of people living with chronic illnesses, and what can be done to help alleviate the symptoms of depression.

Defining chronic illness

First of all, it’s important to define what we mean by a chronic illness, a term widely used to refer to a person who is living with a condition that is persistent and for which there may not currently be a cure. Some examples of this can include:

  • Arthritis
  • Cancer
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)
  • Parkinson’s disease

There are many more chronic illnesses, and even mental health problems can be chronic – such as bipolar disorder and chronic depression (dysthymia) – with many referred to as mental illnesses. As the link to depression in chronic mental illnesses is clearer, we’re going to instead be focusing on the relationship between the listed chronic illnesses that relate more to physical health – such as arthritis, dementia, MS and Parkinson’s.

The relationship between mental health and chronic illnesses

Due to the advancements of neuroscience, our understanding of the relationship between the mind and body continues to improve. However, this relationship is also affected by social elements too – such as wealth, housing conditions and relationships with others.

All of these factors interact with one another. An example of this would be a person living with a chronic illness where symptoms get more intense over time (physical) causing them to have to give up their job (social) which brings about depression (mental). However, the above example could also be true without a person losing their job – as just the knowledge and lived reality of managing a chronic illness can be enough to disrupt a person’s mental health.

Depression can affect all of us – causing disruption to our sleep cycles, rapid weight gain/weight loss, or high blood pressure. For a person living with a chronic illness, however, these changes can interact with the already present symptoms from a chronic illness – exacerbating these symptoms in potentially devastating ways. For example, for a patient living with a heart disease condition or diabetes, depression can bring about dangerously elevated blood pressure, adrenaline and stress levels. None of those things are good for people living with the aforementioned conditions.

Those living with degenerative mental diseases like dementia can, in particular, suffer from depression. This is because diseases that affect mental cognitive tasks like memory often negatively affect a person’s quality of life. At Better Healthcare, we offer strong support to people living with dementia and their families with care at home, and in nursing and residential homes.

How living with a chronic illness can cause depression

While we have touched on how the physical, mental and social all combine to create issues with mental health, we’re going to detail some of the more everyday problems that can cause a person with a chronic illness to become depressed.

  • Frustration: this can be because of a feeling that control has been lost or because of a limitation that chronic illness may have on a person’s everyday life. For example, a person who has previously enjoyed running may find that they can no longer run – or run in the way they used to do. Or it may be because they believe their condition is getting worse and there is a feeling that they can’t do anything about it.
  • Lack of support: a lack of support can also bring about low mood and cause mental health issues. For instance, being emotionally distant from friends and family, or receiving unsatisfactory medical support are common causes.
  • Problems dealing with the everyday: some chronic illnesses can limit what a person can achieve in regards to the care of themselves and their surroundings. Arthritis can, for example, affect a person’s ability to keep their house as clean as they want it to be; whereas people with more advanced cases of dementia can struggle with self-care.

One way to counter many of the above problems is for a carer or nurse to come in and support the person living with chronic illness. At Better Healthcare, our home-care teams can help with everyday tasks and they can also offer companionship and encouragement to clients.

Methods to cope with depression and chronic illness

While those living with chronic illnesses may only be able to control the symptoms of their chronic illness to a certain extent, there are things that can be done to help alleviate depression and mental health problems. Whether you are the person living with the chronic illness, or the person is a loved one you are trying to support, there are both medical and non-medical approaches to dealing with depression.

Firstly, there is the medical route. People may benefit from anti-depressants to help deal with the symptoms of depression. This may be a temporary or permanent solution. Therapy can also help people navigate the mental health problems that can arise when living with a chronic illness. Talking to someone about the changes or worries brought about by a diagnosis can help the person living with the chronic illness to gain some vital perspective in how they deal with any present or future changes.

It’s important to note that if you are seeking help for a loved one, they have to be the one who talks to a doctor about their mental health. You shouldn’t push someone to receive treatment, and you cannot represent them without their consent (unless in specific circumstances), but you can encourage them to talk to their GP about receiving support.

Then there are the non-medical options – such as support groups where people living with chronic illness can speak and meet up with others who are going through or have gone through, similar problems. This can also be done via online groups or message boards.

A good support network of friends and family can also help to alleviate depression. This can be difficult, especially if your loved one is not feeling particularly sociable, but patience, understanding and just being there can go a long way to making your loved one understand that you care.

Support to those living with chronic illnesses around the home can also massively relieve the effects of depression. This can often be achieved via the help of a visiting carer.

Better Healthcare supports people living with chronic illnesses

Our home-care teams support people with chronic illnesses on a daily basis. Whether you are living with a chronic illness and would like some help around the home, or would like someone to support your loved one, then Better Healthcare Services can help.

We provide services that are individually tailored to the needs of our clients – ranging from helping with personal care to providing meals, assisting with the housework and much more.

To find out more about how we can support you or a loved one who is living with a chronic illness, please call us on 0800 668 1234 or contact one of our local offices.

This post is not health advice and should not replace professional advice tailored to your specific circumstances. It is intended to provide information of general interest about current healthcare issues.

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