The Impact of Chronic Illness on Mental Health

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The relationship between physical and mental health is undeniable. Although, some people feel that link more closely than others. Unfortunately, those who live with chronic physical illness are twice as likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression. Physical illnesses can predispose people to mental illnesses in part because many physical conditions, such as Parkinson’s disease, are associated with abnormal levels of hormones and neurotransmitters that can affect mental health. Whereas, chronic pain is associated with imbalances of GABA, serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine.

In fact, studies at the University of California, Berkeley, found that chronic stress causes the body to generate fewer neurons than normal and more myelin-producing cells. This alters the ratio’s of brain matter, which in turn can cause mental health concerns. Researchers believe these changes may be the reason why many people who experience chronic stress are more likely to develop mental health conditions such as mood disorders or anxiety.

Understanding the links between the mind and the body is the first step in developing strategies to reduce the incidence of co-existing conditions and support those already living with mental illnesses and chronic physical conditions such as the ones below.

Diabetes

Diabetes rates are significantly elevated among people with mental illnesses. In fact, both depression and schizophrenia are risk factors for the development of type 2 diabetes. This has to do with their impact on the body’s resistance to insulin. Other risk factors include obesity, high cholesterol levels, and high blood sugar levels. If left untreated, co-existing diabetes and poor mental health can contribute to a severe decline in overall wellbeing.

Heart Disease and Stroke

Those who live with serious mental illness often have elevated levels of blood pressure and stress hormones which can increase the heart rate. These physical changes interfere with our cardiovascular functioning and can raise the risk of heart disease. Conversely, there are significantly elevated rates of depression among people with heart disease. Depression also often occurs following a stroke.

Respiratory Conditions

People who have mental illness have an increased likelihood of developing respiratory conditions like COPD, Bronchitis, or asthma. One major risk factor for respiratory disease is smoking. Those who live with mental illness typically have higher rates of smoking than those who don’t. Conversely, people who already are living with respiratory diseases experience significant levels mental illness. In fact, 3 out 4 people with severe COPD also experience severe anxiety or depression.

Cancers

People living with cancers face a higher risk of developing depression, due in part to high levels of stress, emotional upset, and changes in body image. A co-existing mental health problem can interfere with cancer treatment and remission.

Arthritis

Research has consistently found a lower rate of arthritis in people with serious mental illnesses than the general population. At the same time, people with arthritis are at significantly elevated risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders. These rates are strongest among younger age groups and are also linked to experiences with frequent or chronic pain.


The Importance of Mind/Body Treatment

Mental health conditions can be effectively treated whether or not a chronic disease is also in the picture. But, when possible, it’s best for health practitioners to work together and coordinate care. Treatment may involve changing or adding medications as well as using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) or other talk therapies.

Not every physical health condition can be quickly or easily resolved, but it’s always appropriate to address the mental health issues that may arise. There’s often a cyclical relationship, where suffering from depression, for example, makes it harder to maintain the energy and motivation needed to work on improving the physical illness. Addressing the mental health aspects of a condition can greatly improve someone’s quality of life.