Chronic Physical Illness and Mental Health

Chronic, physical health conditions tend to garner a great deal of immediate focus, due to their continued effect on one’s life. But as the medical field has already discovered, disregarding the connection between chronic physical ailments and aspects of the patient’s mental state can prevent offering a comprehensive treatment regimen that addresses the multi-faceted ways their well-being is being impacted. Read on to learn about the interplay between chronic illnesses and mental health, particularly in cases of chronic, physical ailments and depression.

chronic illnesses and mental health

Chronic Physical Health: A Short Definition

Physical health refers to the proper functioning of the body, and the lack of serious physical illness that might compromise regular bodily functions.

Chronic physical illness refers to ongoing health conditions, where a cure is not available, yet the individual’s life is not immediately threatened by it. Physical conditions such as arthritis, AIDS, diabetes, certain forms of cancer, and asthma are considered chronic health issues if they:

  • Last for over one year.
  • Require continued medical attention.
  • Limit the patient’s ability to carry out daily activities.

Interestingly, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not draw a clear distinction between physical and mental health, choosing instead to highlight the importance of health and well-being, as holistic concepts. Its constitution defines health as the complete physical, mental, and social well-being—and not only the lack of disease.

The Basic Connection Between All Physical and Mental Illnesses

Speaking quite broadly, physical illnesses refer to health risks that directly and primarily affect the body. Mental health illnesses, on the other hand, are focused more on the mind—i.e., on the individual’s thoughts and feelings. Yet this distinction can seem somewhat forced when considering issues such as chronic pain, where both the mind and body are heavily affected by an ailment that has yet to be fully understood.

The adage remains true when considering issues of chronic illness, as a number of parameters have been shown to affect both chronic mental health and chronic physical health. Among them are:

As such, both physical and mental health concerns are affected by many of the same risk factors in life. And in turn, they often influence each other.

Chronic Physical Illness and Depression

Mental health and chronic physical illnesses have been proven to exist in an interplay with one another and can exacerbate the other’s symptoms when appearing in comorbidity.

Chronic Physical Illness and Mental Health

Major Depressive Disorder

Depression in particular has been shown to arise from chronic, physical conditions, as those with such conditions are at a higher risk for developing this mental health concern.

A mood disorder whose main symptoms include persistent sense of deep sadness, and a difficulty experiencing joy, depression can arise due to the helpless one can feel when faced with an incurable physical illness that impedes their life. Certain chronic illnesses, such as Parkinson’s Disease, can also bring about depression due to neural changes in the brain.

Studies have suggested that up to one-third of patients facing a chronic, physical illness also contend with depression. This compared to an estimated 6.7% of the general adult population. Depression is also more likely to occur in cases of chronic illness, where the patient had already experienced depression in the past.

Depression rates are even higher among patients with the following chronic conditions:

  • Heart Attack: 40-65%.
  • Multiple Sclerosis: 40%.
  • Parkinson’s disease: 40%.
  • Stroke: 10-27%.
  • Diabetes: 25%.
  • Cancer: 25%.
  • Chronic Pain Syndrome: 30-54%.

On the other hand, individuals with depression are more likely to eventually develop chronic physical conditions. These include cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, and stroke.

The reasoning behind this directionality, where depression leads to physical illness, is yet unclear. Research suggests that individuals with depression have lesser access to medical healthcare in general, which causes both their depression, as well as other health-related conditions, to worsen. Other studies point to the fact that those facing depression may begin neglecting their physical health, thereby leading to certain physical ailments to develop.

Beyond the initial cause for this connection, research has shown that depression or chronic physical illness are more likely to occur when the other is present, and that their symptoms are likely to be more severe when they appear together.

Overlooking Depressive Symptoms in Cases of Chronic Illness

As physical ailments tend to receive greater attention, symptoms of co-occurring mental health conditions, such as depression, can be glossed over, or not taken as seriously. As a result, patients dealing with both issues may find themselves feeling guilty for losing motivation, or alone with their thoughts, believing no one has any energy left to help them cope with the emotional side of their struggle for greater overall health. Such beliefs tend to feed each other, causing patients to retreat from relationships and activities they would normally find enjoyable. Their depressive symptoms can become more concerning, even as those who care for them wish to find a way to help them through their pain.

It is therefore crucial to connect patients with chronic illness to treatment options. While ensuring their different treatments do not contradict one another, antidepressant medication may be a viable option to help manage their everyday challenges. Long or short-term psychotherapy can also assist in their struggle for greater mental health. And FDA-cleared medical device treatments such as Deep Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (or Deep TMS) have been shown to offer safe and effective symptom relief, especially in treatment-resistant cases of depression.