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The mental side effects of a serious diagnosis

Six people in a support group for chronic illness

Getting diagnosed with a chronic illness is life changing. And it can bring up a whole range of emotions. A therapist can help you find ways to protect your mental health and stay engaged in daily life.

When you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic illness, it’s normal to have a range of emotions. You may be sad, frustrated, angry or scared. You may have new limits on what you can do. Or you may worry about treatment options and outcomes. Are any feelings like these keeping you from living your life? You may have a mental health problem like depression.

In fact, having a disease such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes makes you more likely to have a mental health issue. For example, people with diabetes are two to three times more likely to have depression than people without diabetes. But only 25% to 50% of those patients with depression get diagnosed and treated.1

When left untreated, mental health issues can make physical conditions worse. And physical conditions can worsen untreated mental health issues.

But the reverse is also true. “Any improvements in one area can have a [positive] impact on the other,” says Eric Schroer, MD. He’s a family practice doctor at American Health Network, part of Optum, in Hilliard, Ohio.

The encouraging news? You can do things to take care of yourself and feel better. The challenge is to first recognize that you may have a mental health issue so that you can get the help you need.

Optum has mental health resources that fit with your life. Work one-on-one with a virtual coach or therapist from AbleTo. Find support.

How are mental and physical health connected?

“Mental and physical health are inseparable,” says Meghan Beier, PhD. She’s a psychologist and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Here are three ways mental and physical health are connected:

  • The physical disease can have a direct impact on mental health symptoms. For example, Parkinson’s disease and stroke cause changes in the brain. These may have a direct role in causing depression. It’s similar for multiple sclerosis (MS). MS is a disease that affects the brain, spinal cord and nerves. As many as half of people with MS can have depression.3

    “Depression and anxiety are thought to be a part of the illness itself. They’re not just a reaction to more challenging life circumstances,” says Beier. She’s also the founder of Find Empathy. This network connects people with mental health professionals who specialize in their illnesses.

  • Mental health issues happen because the medical disease changes your life. This includes relationships, work and activities. “Many chronic illnesses affect everyday activities,” says Beier.

  • Mental health symptoms can result from medications. For example, steroids can have mental health side effects.

If you have a chronic illness, when should you see a mental health professional?

Don’t wait until you feel overwhelmed, says Beier. Talk to your doctor if you’re feeling down for most of the day, nearly every day for two weeks or more. Or if your mental health:

  • Stops you from enjoying your hobbies
  • Affects your relationships
  • Interferes with work

Also talk to your doctor if you’ve had any of these symptoms for two weeks or more4:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Appetite changes that result in unwanted weight changes
  • Struggling to get out of bed in the morning because of mood
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in things you usually find enjoyable
  • Inability to perform usual daily functions and responsibilities

You also might want to ask your doctor about a mental health referral as soon as you’re diagnosed. (A referral is a written order to see a specialist.) Look for someone who’s experienced with treating chronic conditions. Meeting with them proactively can help solve issues before they arise, Beier says.

“Even if you’re not struggling emotionally, seeing a therapist early after diagnosis can help. You can learn strategies for adjusting to new symptoms. You can also learn how to cope with challenges that can arise in the future,” says Beier.

You can also think about working with a virtual therapist. Or try using digital self-care tools to support your mental health. Explore mental health support and resources that fit with your life.

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What should you expect from a mental health visit?

The first session will involve gathering information. The therapist will review your medical history. They’ll also get up to speed on the current problem. This is so they can understand your issues and challenges. “You’ll then focus on finding helpful ways to think about and act in the current situation,” says Dr. Schroer.

What can you do to help yourself when you have a chronic illness?

So much of managing chronic conditions requires self-care. And if you feel stressed and overwhelmed, caring for yourself is even more difficult. Yet you can control how you care for yourself. And that can help improve both your physical and mental health. Actively facing your illness can be empowering.6

Dr. Schroer advises talking to your doctor about what you can do to optimize your health. But here are some suggestions:

  • Eat properly. Try not to skip meals. Even if you don’t feel like having a full meal, try healthy snacks. That can help manage blood sugar and your mood. Here are more tips on how to eat healthier.

  • Get enough sleep every day. A good night’s rest reduces stress and can help you focus.

  • Be more active. It doesn’t have to be anything intense. Try just walking around the block, playing with the dog or gardening. Anything that gets you moving.

  • Join an online or in-person support group. Empathy is a powerful emotion. Talking to people who have the same experiences and feelings as you do can help you feel better.

  • Create a circle of support. Talking about having a chronic illness can be awkward. Let friends and family know what your needs are. They can provide emotional support and practical help.

Having a chronic illness can be overwhelming. But always remember that you’re not alone. There are many people who struggle just as you do. Ask for the help you need. Your health is worth it.

Want to learn more? Head over to “Living healthier with a long-term health problem.” 

Sources

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diabetes and mental health. Last reviewed May 7, 2021. Accessed August 22, 2022.
  2. National Institute of Mental Health. Chronic illness and mental health: Recognizing and treating depression. Last reviewed 2021. Accessed August 22, 2022.
  3. International Review of Psychiatry. Depression in multiple sclerosis. October 29, 2017. Accessed August 22, 2022.
  4. National Institute of Mental Health. Caring for your mental health. Last reviewed April 2021. Accessed August 22, 2022.
  5. American Psychological Association. Coping with a diagnosis of chronic illness. Last reviewed 2013. Accessed August 22, 2022.

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