THIS WEEKS FEATURE: Mental Health and It’s Role in Chronic Illness


Mental health problems are sneaky little symptoms of chronic illness that no one really talks about.  As if the knowledge that your health concern is not curable wasn’t enough, living with the symptoms 24/7 can be very overwhelming, saddening and tough.

Regardless of having a chronic illness, mental health problems are not really talked about enough anyway, and the stigma surrounding it makes it hard for people to seek help.  Add that to suffering from an illness that no one can see, understand or believe in, then it’s an even tougher road to help.

I believe it is perfectly acceptable to have one of those days where everything feels completely difficult, against you and overwhelming – I think having a good cry, getting it all out of your system and allowing yourself to feel like that for that moment in time is a good thing.  But, when those days are becoming more frequent, or altered moods are becoming more permanent, then it might be time to get some help.

When I talk about mental help, I mean things such as anxiety and depression.  Of course, there are other mental health conditions that someone may suffer from, but the rates of anxiety and depression are so high in those of us with chronic illness, that they deserve to be spoken about more.

I mean, did you know that depression is one the most common complications of chronic illness?  Depression itself has a variety of signs and symptoms and as well as being closely linked to anxiety, it can cause complications of its own.  Depression can lead to physical symptoms like fatigue, aches and pain, as well as disrupt sleeping and eating patterns.  As with most things, depression can range from mild to severe, but regardless of where you’ve been “placed on the scale”, it’s important to remember that not one persons experience of depression is more serious than anothers.  Depression is serious – it can lead to suicidal thoughts or worse.

Anxiety can, unfortunately, easily arise from being chronically ill.  For example, it might start in relation to symptoms that make it more challenging to go out, but progress to avoiding social situations and being unable to cope in them.  Or, it may be surrounding medication, going to doctors surgeries or hospitals.  Like depression is more than feeling down, anxiety is more than being worried.  People with anxiety tend to feel constantly on edge, restless, irritability and poor concentration.  It produces some serious physical symptoms – hyperventilation, dizziness and irregular heartbeats (which are associated with panic attacks) can make a person pass out.

I think the physical symptoms of mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety are forgotten about or dismissed by others, when actually they are often the worst part of it.   Imagine if you are trying to manage these symptoms as well as those of your chronic illness?

I’ll put my hands up and say that my mental health has taken a bit of a battering over the last few years, particularly when I was trying to get diagnosed and when things are getting tough.  At the moment, I’m in pain 24/7, struggling to work and have a social life and taking a large amount of pain medication.  Sometimes it does feel like my life is getting out of control – I’m struggling to work, maintain a social life or stay of strong medication.  There isn’t necessarily a lot of support out there that is specific to mental health problems with chronic illness, but I’ve found the online community brilliantly supportive, alongside my family and friends.

I’ve listed some tips and ideas below for how you can keep your mental health in check, but it’s so important to remember that whilst it may seem hard to access help, getting help is important – it’s not a sign of weakness in anyway.

Tips For Keeping Your Mental Health in Check

  • Make sure you have someone that you are able to talk to, in a really open and honest way, and someone you are not afraid to reveal how you’re really feeling.  If you’re not comfortable, you’re not going to be able to talk.  The person can be anyone that you trust!
  • Being able to identify when your mental health is being affected is key – sometimes keeping a diary of your moods or keeping track of “bad days” can help you see when something might be up
  • Manage your chronic illness (if you suffer with one) as best you can.  If your illness isn’t well-managed, then you may find the symptoms or problems you have become too much
  • Surround yourself with as many loving and supportive people as you can so that is doesn’t feel like you’re dealing with everything on your own
  • Doing things such as eating healthily, giving up smoking and alcohol have been proven to improve mental health and well-being
  • Similar to the above, exercise is a great way to boost your mood.  It doesn’t have to be anything with a lot of exertion involved, walking is just as good!  Exercise not only has physical and psychological benefits, it exposes you to fresh air and the sun
  • Let your GP know how you’re feeling – even if you aren’t suffering with clinical depression or anxiety, if you’re having days where your mood is low or something similar, keeping your GP informed will enable them to help you.  You never know, they might be the ones to offer you help by spotting that something has changed.
  • Do something everyday that you enjoy or can look forward to
  • If you are finding that your mental health is limited what you can or can’t do, set yourself small and achievable goals.
  • Get help if you need it.  There are services available through the NHS, from group therapy to medication.  You don’t even need to go through your GP to access counselling services in some areas.

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