Understanding the Intersection of Chronic Illness and Mental Health

Understanding the Intersection of Chronic Illness and Mental Health

Understanding the Intersection of Chronic Illness and Mental Health

May marks Mental Health Awareness Month, a time dedicated to raising awareness and eradicating stigma around mental health issues. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness. Depression and anxiety top the list, significantly impacting millions of lives across the nation.

Why Chronic Illness Sufferers Are More Vulnerable

People living with chronic illnesses face unique challenges that can significantly increase their risk of developing mental health issues. Here’s a deeper look into why.

  • Physical strain and pain. Chronic pain is a common component of many chronic diseases, and it can lead to a decreased ability to function, contributing to feelings of helplessness and depression. For example, arthritis and fibromyalgia can make even routine physical activities challenging, fostering frustration and stress.
  • Social isolation. Chronic illnesses often come with decreased mobility or stamina, leading to diminished social activities and interactions. This isolation can escalate into feelings of loneliness and anxiety, as social networks provide emotional support and validation.
  • Economic stress. The financial impact of managing a chronic illness can be considerable, including medical bills, lost earnings, and the cost of necessary lifestyle adaptations. Financial pressure is a well-known risk factor for mental health disorders, adding another layer of stress that can exacerbate existing mental health conditions.
  • Medication side effects. Some medications used to treat chronic conditions can have side effects that affect mood, sleep, and energy levels, potentially leading to depression or anxiety.
Woman In Dialysis Session

Managing a long-term illness can be incredibly stressful, and chronic stress is directly linked to an increased risk of depression and anxiety disorders.

What to Do In a Crisis

Recognizing when you or someone you know is in a mental health crisis is critical. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the signs that you, a loved one, or someone else you know is having a mental health crisis. Signs of a crisis may involve:

  • Thoughts, threats or attempts to harm or kill one’s self or another
  • Delusions, hallucinations, or overwhelming panic
  • Uncontrollable emotional outbursts, including verbal or physical abuse
  • Extreme withdrawal and/or restlessness
  • Not sleeping or eating for many days

If you are in crisis and are in danger, seek immediate help. To do this, you can:

  • Call 911 
  • Text 988 
  • Text “HELLO” TO 741741
  • Call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-TALK)
  • Go to the nearest emergency room

Don’t face a crisis alone. Reach out to friends, family, or professionals who can offer immediate support and guidance.

Actions to Enhance Mental Health Outcomes

For those not in immediate crisis, there are a variety of steps that you can take and integrate into your daily routine in order to boost your mood and improve your quality of life.

For Patients

  • Engage in regular physical activity. Light to moderate exercise can greatly improve mood and decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. Tailored exercise plans should be developed in consultation with healthcare providers to suit individual capabilities and limitations.
  • Seek professional help. Counseling or therapy can be extremely beneficial. Techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and acceptance and commitment theory (ACT) have been shown to be effective for those dealing with chronic illness-related anxiety and depression, though other types of therapy are available, along with pharmacological treatments.
  • Stay connected. Engaging in community activities or online support groups can help reduce feelings of isolation. Even virtual connections can offer meaningful support and a sense of belonging.

For Caregivers

  • Educate yourself. Understanding the specific ways in which chronic illness affects mental health can better equip caregivers to provide emotional support and practical assistance to those they care for.
  • Encourage open conversations. Creating a safe environment for expressing feelings can help those with chronic illnesses feel understood and less alone.
  • Prioritize self-care. It’s essential for caregivers to maintain their own health and well-being, on which the stresses of caregiving can have a strong negative impact. Regular breaks, along with psychological support and healthy eating habits, can help sustain the capacity to care effectively for others. Ask for, and accept, help when it’s needed.

For Healthcare Professionals

  • Integrate mental health screening into routine care. Making mental health screenings a routine part of medical care for patients with chronic illnesses can lead to earlier identification and treatment of mental health issues.
  • Promote a multidisciplinary approach. Ensuring that care plans include input from a range of health professionals can help address all aspects of a patient’s health.
  • Educate patients and families. Providing resources and education about the psychological impacts of chronic illnesses can empower patients and their support networks to seek help when needed.

Support mental health care for all

This Mental Health Awareness Month, let’s renew our commitment to integrating mental health care into the broader health care conversation, especially for those managing chronic illnesses. By understanding and addressing the unique challenges they face, we can help improve both their mental and physical health outcomes. Let’s continue to support each other and work towards a community where mental health care is accessible and effective for all.

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