Chronic Illness, Mental Health, and Overcoming Stigma
You don’t need to have a chronic physical condition in order to develop a mental health condition, but it does raise your risk. Research suggests that people with chronic medical conditions such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, Parkinson’s, and cardiovascular disease may be more likely to develop chronic mental illnesses, particularly mood disorders like depression. COVID-19 long-haulers, people who experience lingering, new, or recurring symptoms after recovering from their initial infections, have joined that mix.
For anyone living with a chronic illness, dealing with ongoing physical symptoms, and with life-disrupting treatments like chemotherapy or dialysis, is difficult enough. Feeling like a burden on your family, being burdened with medical bills, or losing your income, benefits, relationships, and sometimes even home, due to disability from a physical health issue can be a crushing blow that sends you reeling into a downward spiral. Mental health conditions can also result in physical symptoms, so it can take time to determine which is the cause and which the effect.
Barriers to seeking care for mental health conditions
According to Mental Health America, more than 50 million Americans are living with mental illness, and about 54.7% of them (over 28 million people) are not receiving treatment. There are many reasons for this, including, but certainly not limited to:
- Lack of diagnosis
- Lack of insurance or sufficient income
- Lack of community mental health resources
- Mental health status ignored or overlooked when serious physical illness is present
- Discrimination on both the systemic and individual levels
Another problem, and one which is related to discrimination, is stigma. Stigma is when people have a negative perception of you—and may act on that negative perception—due to some distinguishing feature, personal characteristic, or association that’s considered a disadvantage, often driven by a negative stereotype. Fear of a cultural and societal stigma surrounding mental illness often prevents people who need help from reaching out for it.
Other times it’s a matter of recognizing that something’s not right with you emotionally or psychologically, and acknowledging that it’s not getting better on its own. Mental illness is no more shameful than any other medical condition. Overcoming the fear of stigma, and proactively reaching out for help, is the first step toward healing.
What should I look out for, and how do I know if I should seek help?
Temporary feelings of sadness, anger, confusion, forgetfulness, and grief are to be expected in life, particularly when you’ve just received a diagnosis of a serious health condition or have been living with a long-term debilitating illness. If your symptoms last longer than a few weeks in an acute form, however, you may be experiencing depression.
(Depression isn’t simply a ‘bad mood’. It’s a medical condition that can manifest a wide range of symptoms)
Depression interferes with your daily activities, ability to function, and ability to feel joy. It isn’t simply a ‘bad mood’. It’s a medical condition that can manifest a wide range of symptoms that can be easily overlooked or explained away as a reaction to fleeting stimuli. Just a few signs and symptoms depression include:
- Persistent feelings of:
- Sadness, anxiety, or emotional emptiness/numbness
- Hopelessless, pessimism, or despair
- Irritability, frustration‚ or restlessness
- Guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or ability to take pleasure in friendships and hobbies
- Fatigue or feelings of heaviness
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
- Oversleeping, difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, poor sleep quality
- Changes in appetite and/or weight, either upward or downward
- Aches, pains, cramps, or digestive problems without an obvious cause, and that don’t respond to standard treatments
- Suicidal thoughts, plans, or suicide attempts
If you or a loved one are in crisis, text 988 from anywhere in the U.S. to connect with a trained counselor. You can also send a text to 741741, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
How to get help
Fortunately, most mental health conditions, including depression, are treatable. While there is no single treatment or combination of treatments that’s guaranteed to work for everyone, the use of medication, psychotherapy (talk therapy), cognitive behavioral therapy, and/or brain stimulation therapy can not only help people achieve a better quality of life overall, but can also help relieve physical symptoms resulting from chronic illness.
Speaking out about, and seeking help for, mental health concerns help to break apart the stigma that has blocked the path to healing for so many people. Mental Health Awareness Month is an opportunity to help yourself and others start that journey toward better health and wellbeing.
(Speaking out about and seeking help for mental health concerns help to break apart the stigma that has blocked the path to healing for so many people.)
Here are some resources to explore as you decide your next steps.